Bernie bills itself as “a story so unbelievable it must be true.” Directed by Richard Linklater and released in 2011, Bernie is based on a true story but done in a mockumentary style played as a tragi-comedy satire and it’s truly hilarious.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) moves to the small town of Carthage, Texas, where he immediately becomes beloved by the local community. He’s described by the townspeople as “charismatic”, “he had the ability to make the world seem kind”, and “he made you feel real good about yourself”. Bernie takes a job at the local funeral home where he becomes Assistant Funeral Director. He proves himself to be the perfect employee: a successful salesman, kind, discreet, and “a magician” when it came to making the dead look good. In fact the film opens with a college lecture from Bernie on the best way to present a corpse, extolling the virtues of Super Glue and warning of the dangers of “lip drift” and “over cosmetising”.
Bernie becomes friendly with the town’s wealthiest widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley McLaine), a cantankerous mean woman who has no friends. The two become inseparable but their happiness quickly turns sour as Marjorie’s true personality comes to the fore. As a local says, ‘Mrs Nugent…is not nice, not nice to a large degree, just evil…’
Mrs Nugent treats Bernie like a slave, orders him about, constantly berates him and nags him, and eventually one day it all gets too much for poor sweet kind generous Bernie, so he ups and shoots her! Bernie is charged with first degree murder by Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), the District Attorney who describes himself as “naturally suspicious”. In fact he’s transparently ambitious and rough around the edges with more than a little misplaced swagger.
The cast are excellent. McConaughey is on familiar territory – after all he’s a Texan and has played a lawyer before, most notably in A Time to Kill and The Lincoln Lawyer – but here McConaughey lets his talent for comedic acting shine. Jack Black is a revelation, toning down his usual exuberant goofiness for a nuanced form of comedy with a surprising depth of emotion. Shirley McLaine plays another version of her character Ouiser in Steel Magnolias; a bad tempered, mean spirited, ornery old Southern woman.
Bernie is true black comedy. Linklater has set the tone perfectly; neither rudely disrespectful nor over the top caricature. There are interviews conducted with the residents of Carthage, some of whom are played by actors and some of whom are real life residents, further blurring the boundaries between film and documentary. Despite its many laughs, Bernie is also an intimate look into small town American life and that it what gives the film its heart. Definitely one to watch.