Not only do I think Richard Linklater‘s Dazed and Confused is one of the best high school movies ever made (side-by-side with American Graffiti, of course), but more impressively Linklater has never made a bad film. Yes, while he has had his ups and downs and has come a long way since his indie darling days with 1991’s Slacker, Linklater’s movies are never uninteresting and frequently push the boundaries of presenting an interesting story on screen. Bernie is another example of this, as Linklater has done what would be impossible in the hands of a lesser filmmaker: he has taken a horrific real-life murder case and turned it into… well, a very funny comedy.
A bit of the backstory is necessary, and since this was a national news story back in 1996 it’s not exactly spoilers. Jack Black (in probably his best role) plays Bernie Tiede, a effeminate funeral parlor director who is the most well-loved man in the small town of Carthage in East Texas. We know this because throughout the film Linklater cuts in interviews with the real-life residents of Carthage, many of whom swear that Bernie was the kindest man they had ever met. Of course, anyone who is way too kind is often easy to take advantage of, and soon Bernie finds himself the constant companion of Marjorie Nugent, the meanest, most stuck-up woman in town (who is brilliantly portrayed by Shirley MacLaine). Bernie meets Marjorie at her husband’s funeral and for reasons not entirely clear — perhaps it is because she was so cold-hearted, perhaps it is because of her immense fortune — Bernie tries befriending her. The pair soon becomes traveling companions and intimate friends — perhaps too intimate, in some folk’s estimation (there’s lots of speculation among the real-life townsfolk about the relationship between the gay Bernie and the septuagenarian Marjorie) — and eventually the relationship grows to the point where Bernie becomes Marjorie’s full-time servant, with Marjorie becoming increasingly possessive, leaving Bernie with hardly any way out. That is, until one day when Bernie finally snaps — the most calm, docile “snap” you’ll ever see — and murders Marjorie. Just as in the real-life case, Bernie then spends the next nine months acting as if nothing happened. What transpires from there is the real story, and it just gets odder and more compelling as it goes on.
Matthew McConaughey (reuniting with Linklater, who directed him in perhaps his greatest role — David “I get older, they stay the same age” Wooderson in Dazed and Confused) is District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson who, while rather grandstanding, seems to be the only one in town who is seeking justice for Marjorie. In fact, despite Bernie’s confession, most of the townsfolk either deny Bernie committed the murder, or completely justify it by pointing out how unpleasant Marjorie was and how generous Bernie was (of course, it was all with her money). The real-life interviews give us such fascinating details and points-of-view, all punctuated with fantastic East Texas turns-of-phrase like someone “put a bug in your ear” or “Marjorie had her nose stuck up so high she’d drown in a rainstorm.” Though I’d like to praise Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth for the script, I have to admit that the non-scripted interviews feature the best dialogue — which proves the old, overused adage, “you couldn’t make this stuff up.”
Linklater has taken a significant risk in making a film tied to tragic events and turning it into a comedy, yet it’s impossible to see this story otherwise. It is a complete farce — the nicest man in town kills the meanest woman and the subsequent reactions — and I applaud Linklater for having the courage to take the film in that direction. Linklater, being a Texas native, has done a fantastic job in his films about Texas, but being that this film is set in East Texas it’s more of a Southern Gothic story (it recalls William Faulkner’s stories). Also worthy of praise is the acting, with Black showing incredible depth — for years I thought Black was only capable of playing his comedic character, but he’s beginning to show he has far more to draw from. McConaughey is nearly unrecognizable behind his George H.W. Bush glasses, stetson hat, and calculated hand gestures, and it was great to see him play this sort of role after The Lincoln Lawyer. McLaine, of course, is beyond perfect for the role. As for the supporting cast, it’s hard to figure out who is a real-life Carthage resident and who is an acting stand-in — they’re that damn good.
Perhaps my only issue with the movie is that the post-murder scenes lead to an overflow of characters and really lack the fascinating interplay in the earlier scenes between McLaine and Black. At that point McConaughey’s character takes the narrative over, and while he’s great it’s an abrupt shift that doesn’t quite have the entertainment value of the earlier scenes. I’m not sure how the movie could’ve been done otherwise, but it does run out of gas in the third act.
While seeing Bernie might amount to an ethical struggle as you consider the facts of the case, it’s a movie that really deserves a look. Comedies about real-life murders are obviously rare, so it’s worth seeing this movie to see how Linklater not only rises to the challenge, but makes one of his best films in the process.
Rating: Bernie proves a compelling story can be approached from any angle and still work (8.5/10)
Bernie opens in theaters on April 27.