In 1996, the small town of Carthage, Texas experienced the most bizarre act of violence it has ever seen perpetrated by the least likely of suspects. This strange, almost surreal tale, caught the attention of a journalist named Skip Hollandsworth, and his article on the event caught the attention of film making auteur Richard Linklater. After the two put their minds together, the end result of their collaboration was the 2011 dark comedy Bernie. Murder may seem like a really heavy subject to make a joke out of, but in the hands of Linklater it has the ability to be both funny and upsetting, which makes Bernie an odd, but lovable dark comedy.
It would be a strange thing if the most popular and loved man in town was the assistant mortician, but that is the case of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). In the small town of Carthage, Texas, Bernie serves the community in the ways he knows best: making the deceased look their best for their funeral and comforting the the grieving family in the days and weeks that follow. Normally it all works out fine, but Bernie gets in a little over his head when he gets involved with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the meanest woman in Carthage who recently lost her wealthy husband. While Bernie does become good friends with her, their relationship deteriorates over the course of a few years which pushes Bernie to do something unthinkable and completely out of character. As questions start rising about Nugent’s sudden disappearance, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) starts building a solid case for murder.
Bernie works really well on a few different levels. For one thing, you have some surprisingly fantastic performances, but then you also have a really unique true crime story that works because of how funny the screenplay is and how interesting the questions is raises are. It’s quite clear that Bernie Tiede did something egregiously wrong and deserves to be punished, but I found myself siding with the people of the town when they were lobbying to make his sentence a lot less harsh than it should have been. It made me wonder about the adage that the punishment should fit the crime. Can there be circumstances where that shouldn’t be as strongly applied? I don’t want to analyze this movie too much because it doesn’t really need to be, but it was nice to see that there was more to it than just a dark comedy. It had a point of view that could rouse up debate, which is a good thing when working in this genre.
Going into Bernie, I was expecting it to be pretty straightforward when it comes to structure, but this is actually a very strange example of how to make a movie. Leave it to a film maker like Richard Linklater to take what could’ve been a pretty average movie and work it into something different. What makes this movie really unique is that there are interviews throughout the length of the film with some of the real residents of Carthage who personally knew Bernie Tiede. There are some interviews that are scripted, but a majority of them are spoken by people that experienced the events first hand. This makes the movie feel very authentic, but also something like a legend to come out of this small Texas town, where word of mouth sometimes distorts the truth but gives you a taste of the town’s lifestyle. It’s also really funny to see scenes play out that are exactly what one of the interviewees were just talking about. At first, I was a little put off by this, but I’ve grown to really love the originality behind it.
Other than his part in his band, Tenacious D, I feel like Jack Black’s film career really took off when he starred in another of Linklater’s movies, School of Rock from 2003. Black gives a funny and pretty standard performance in that film, but he really gets to show off his acting chops in Bernie with a performance that may be the only reason you need to see this movie. Sure, I highly recommend the film anyway, but I find that it’s almost necessary for people to see it because of Black. Bernie is a character that is far from what the actor is used to playing, but he seems to pull it off with ease and it’s easy to forget that you’re watching an actor and not the actual Bernie Tiede.
Bernie had a lot of potential to be a run of the mill dark comedy, but under the direction Richard Linklater, it became something a little more. With films like Dazed and Confused and Boyhood under his belt, it’s quite obvious that Bernie doesn’t rank up at the top of Linklater’s filmography but it does rank the highest for Jack Black. This is an interesting movie in terms of content and structure, but it will also make you laugh and want to stick around for the end. I’d say check this one out.