In Richard Linklater’s first feature-length film since 2008’s Me and Orson Welles, Bernie, as with Dazed and Confused and Slacker, returns the Houston-born director to his Texas roots. But while his most celebrated efforts wandered through Gen-X malaise in bohemia — namely, Austin — Bernie situates itself in the nether-regions of small-town East Texas. Carthage, Tex., to be specific. Desolate, God-fearin’ and preternaturally friendly, these aren’t the sprawling, Texas-forever plains of Friday Night Lights. Nor do chiselled, brooding southerner types like Tim Riggins appear.
Based on a true story documented by journalist Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie’s all small-town living. And that, according to Linklater, was intentional.
“As a native East Texan, I was resentful of people’s views,” he says. “[Texas is] always giant, dry landscapes. It never included trees, the beautiful woods — that’s the world I grew up in. I’m relieved that it’s not being perceived as Deliverance. East Texas was the space in the background, and it was important to me to explain the different parts of the state.”
The explanation provided by Bernie, however, put East Texas’s personalities in the spotlight. Following a wildly popular, foppish funeral director, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the film dips into his relationship with a detested old-money widow, Marjorie Nugent (played by the excellent Shirley MacLaine). When an initially well-intentioned friendship turns into an exploitative, master-slave relationship, Bernie snaps — murdering Marjorie in the process. Bernie hides his tracks; and well-loved as he is, no one questions him. That is, until hard-edged district attorney Buck Davidson (an unusually tough Matthew McConaughey) gets suspicious. Hilarious confusion ensues, as Bernie shifts from snappy comedy, to docu-drama, to courtroom tale.
“The murder, it’s one horrible act,” says Linklater. “To me, Bernie’s story is intriguing: Can the nicest guy snap or get involved in a situation where they take someone’s life? We all can. And it’s intense psychologically.”
Propelled by doc-style talking heads, Bernie isn’t a gothic. In fact, it hardly lives up to its dark-comedy billing. (“It’s just a comedy,” Linklater insists.) Despite orbiting around Marjorie’s murder, Bernie is delivered with unusual warmth — it never condemns nor celebrates its protagonist’s actions. Like, say, Waking Life, Bernie isn’t a declarative statement; it poses more questions than it answers.
“It’s about legacy. And legacies are out of our hands,” he says. “Life is a high school popularity contest to that degree. If everyone in a small town says you’re a horrible person, then I think you’re a horrible person. To me, that was the way to tell Bernie’s story — ultimately, your legacy’s all that’s left.”
Well, except the town itself, right? “Well, Bernie’s in jail and Marjorie’s dead. All that’s left is how their story reverberates in time. And that’s key to a small-town atmosphere. The film, ultimately, is more about the community than Bernie and Marjorie. The community will continue after they’re long gone, and the story will continue to change without them.”
But such questions needn’t be considered to digest Bernie. Linklater tracked down, and filmed, dozens of Carthage residents — many of whom knew the actual Bernie — so the film’s humanity and gentle humour never feels scripted. And its casting decisions fit effortlessly: MacLaine has aged elegantly, and pulls off the bougie sourpuss act excellently. McConaughey’s hickish hard-ass produces natural laughs, if only because it’s a far cry from his throwaway pretty-boy roles. Yeah, we’re looking at you, Lincoln Lawyer.
Then there’s Black. Sure, we know from his work with Tenacious D that dude can sing and dance (and can be a world-class irritant in the process), but he’s also cartoonish, dandyish and naive enough to play the part — and it feels like Black’s best and most natural role in recent memory. Linklater, who worked with Black in School of Rock, says he hadn’t considered anyone else for the role, even if Bernie demanded that he step out of his comfort zone.
“I went up to Jack before he shot the scene [where he murders Marjorie],” says Linklater, who, with Black, met with the now-jailed Bernie in real-life to prepare for the film. “I asked if he’d ever killed anyone onscreen. He hadn’t. And I hadn’t either! So I said, ‘Let’s do this right.’ Let’s show how murder can screw up lives. I mean, we live in a time when lives are cheap, and I love action films with body counts, but I wanted to approach murder like it’s a big deal. Because it is.”