Film review: Bernie

CINEMA is littered with smooth, seductive killers whose charms belie their murderous intentions, but it’s hard to think as one as sweet or benign-seeming as the eponymous protagonist of Richard Linklater’s new film, Bernie.
Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) gets into a dangerous situation in with Jack Blacks titular Bernie. Picture: ContributedMarjorie (Shirley MacLaine) gets into a dangerous situation in with Jack Blacks titular Bernie. Picture: Contributed
Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) gets into a dangerous situation in with Jack Blacks titular Bernie. Picture: Contributed

Bernie (12A)

Directed By: Richard Linklater

Starring: Jack Black, Shirley Maclaine, Matthew Mcconaughey, Richard Robichaux

Rating: ****

A fastidious but much-loved assistant funeral director in the East Texas town of Carthage, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a Godsend to the local community: as attentive to the cosmetic needs of the dead as they pass into the afterlife as he is to the emotional needs of the bereaved that are left behind.

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Bernie has a way about him, a sort of folksy, homespun touch that appears to be genuine and completely lacking in guile. When he’s not leading church goers in song with roof-raising renditions of Amazing Grace, he’s charming the blue-rinse brigade with flowers, empathetic hugs and tea dates. Even when he’s talking local residents into opting for more expensive caskets – with sliding drawers for treasured possessions and additional legroom for those of a taller persuasion – he seems to believe in what he’s peddling. Trustworthy, civic minded and generous to a fault, it’s actually hard to find anyone with a bad word to say about him. Being kind and caring in Carthage clearly counts for a lot – perhaps even too much going by the way the locals rally round him when he kills and confesses to the murder of curmudgeonly 81-year-old widower Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacClaine). In Carthage, shooting an old lady four times in the back and stuffing her in a freezer for nine months isn’t a heinous act of murder, it’s a public service, ridding the community of a grouchy old woman who didn’t care much for it in the first place.

At which point it should probably be pointed out that Bernie is based on a true story, a fact that ­Linklater takes full advantage of as he turns this deceptively farcical tale of salt-of-the-Earth people pulling together behind one of their own into a slyer look at the way communities march to their own weird rhythms. In this respect, it has much in common with the likes of Slacker and Dazed & Confused, especially the way Linklater focuses his non-judgmental, anthropological eye (and generosity of spirit) on Bernie and the array of eccentrics with whom he clearly felt an affinity. Structuring the film in the manner of a pseudo true-crime docudrama, albeit without the lurid and exploitative tone one usually associates with such things, Linklater intersperses the dramatic reconstructions starring Black and MacLaine with scripted and non-scripted testimonies from Carthage residents both real and invented. The locals bring a wonderful sense of life and vitality to proceedings as they inject their memories and reminiscences of the real Bernie with amusing colloquialisms and turns-of-phrase. Their compassionate if morally skewed asides certainly make it easy to understand why this relatively recent incomer made such an effort to adapt to life in their town.

What drove him to murder, however, is another story. Those who knew him offer theories, but the real intrigue comes from Black’s performance as Bernie and the nuances MacLaine brings to Marjorie. By all accounts the latter was a mean and nasty widower, rich from her late husband’s fortune, but so stingy that her own grandchildren attempted to sue her. MacLaine, however, takes care to provide flashes of humanity. Marjorie’s eyes have the kind of mistrustful weariness that comes from thinking everyone around wants something. When Bernie repeatedly shows up to comfort her with flowers and gift-baskets after her husband’s funeral, she doesn’t appear to view him any differently. And yet, the way she resignedly lets him into not just her house, but into her life as well, suggests that she sees his presence as a chance to offset some of the loneliness to which she will never admit to feeling while also keeping the other circling vultures at bay.

Was Bernie one of those vultures? Or was he merely seeking the kind of emotional nourishment from their increasingly devoted companionship that perhaps wasn’t forthcoming from the more fleeting interactions he had with the rest of the people of Carthage? Black and Linklater take care to maintain an air of ambiguity on this front. Black – the best he’s ever been – may play Bernie as a saintly soul, but he provides just enough shading to suggest his relentless do-gooding might be masking an emptiness that he’d rather not confront.

Matthew McConaughey, another Linklater veteran, provides great support too as Carthage’s laid-back district attorney. He doesn’t buy Bernie’s nice-guy routine, nor does he find it particularly charming that Bernie’s local cheerleaders are inadvertently threatening to make it difficult to secure a conviction – even with a full confession.

It’s marvellously oddball stuff – another Linklater triumph in a wide-ranging, consistently interesting and unpredictable career.