REVIEW: Richard Linklater's Bernie Paints an Opaque Portrait of a Happy-Go-Lucky Killer
Can a person really be charming enough to get away with murder? Especially if the victim is a super-beeyotch to begin with? That’s the question asked, and almost answered, by Richard Linklater’s Bernie, in which Jack Black plays a Carthage, Texas, assistant funeral-home director who’s so beloved in his community that his fellow citizens are almost willing to look the other way when he breaks the sixth commandment.
Bernie, written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, was drawn from a Texas Monthly article about the real-life Bernie Tiede, now serving a prison sentence for the 1996 murder of 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent. Tiede shot Nugent in the back four times with a rifle and then proceeded to stuff her body into a freezer in her own home. Nugent was missing for the better part of the year before her body was discovered; Tiede defended himself by claiming that she’d abused him emotionally, driving him to the breaking point.
It was a stroke of genius, at least a miniature one, to cast Black in this role – he’s made to play the affable teddy bear who could snap at any moment. Linklater structures the movie so that almost before we even see Bernie, we know just what kind of a guy the townspeople think he is. In the opening sequence we see him giving a glossy-ghoulish presentation on how to prepare corpses for viewing: “Don’t overcosmetize!” he warns, and Linklater follows up with a series of on-camera testimonials from the locals, giving witness to the fact that before he snapped, Bernie took just as much care with the living as he did with the dead. (One of these townspeople is played, with sharp, wicked glee, by Matthew McConaughey's mother, Kay.) Bernie keeps track of which people’s kids had gone off to which colleges; he sings boisterously with the church choir; and in the line of duty he pays special attention to the bereaved, particularly fragile widows, though he doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in their money.
At least, not until he buries the husband of the cantankerous Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who habitually terrorizes the town with her rudeness and self-involvement. She also happens to be loaded, and somehow she takes a shine to Bernie, even though she appears to hate everyone else. Before long, the two are traveling first-class to New York and Paris, seemingly thrilled with each other’s company – until Marjorie begins wrapping Bernie around her little finger, demanding countless numbers of errands and household chores. Her harping takes the spring out of Bernie’s step, plus it interrupt his important community activities, like directing and starring in a production of The Music Man.
Local sheriff Danny Buck Davidson, played by a breezily laid-back Matthew McConnaughey, makes it clear he never bought any of Bernie’s shtick, and as far as he’s concerned, it doesn’t matter how much everyone hated Marjorie Nugent – murder is murder, no two ways about it. But Linklater and Black keep us squarely on the other side, with the townspeople, who seem to believe Bernie has committed a selfless community service. MacLaine nudges us in that direction, too: Her performance isn’t big – it’s small and pinched and calculating, though it’s also rather unformed. Marjorie Nugent is a caricature, which is probably all she needs to be, particularly when all eyes are supposed to be trained on Bernie. As Black plays him, he’s a roly-poly PSA for the joys of small-town life, as happy to raise his eyes to heaven during a church service as he is to march, skip and bunny-hop his way through a community-theater production. (Bernie’s possible homosexuality is strongly hinted at, though the movie addresses the issue with a noncommittal shrug.)
Linklater allows Bernie's story to unfold in a way that’s a little arch but mostly toothless. At times he comes close to talking down to his small-town subjects, but somehow he always pulls back just in time: Linklater, a Texan himself, is earnest enough not to want to score jokes off people, and he seems to genuinely understand the allure of small-town life. The movie is mild fun, though its persistent self-consciousness keeps tugging us away from some of the pleasures it might offer; Linklater is perhaps a little too taken with the quaint, quirky elements of this story, and its folksiness becomes too much of a cartoon.
As Bernie, Black is both likable and unreadable, as we can imagine the real Bernie might be. This isn’t a deep performance – everything slides off Bernie’s surface, so we never really know what he’s thinking. That makes sense for a guy who kills a woman and then goes about his business for months while the body of the deceased lies in the deep freeze. It’s a supreme example of comic cold-bloodedness, and yet somehow the whole enterprise should be funnier, darker and more pointed. Bernie, like its lead character, has a degree of diffuse, aw-shucks charm, but it's also maddeningly opaque. Why does Bernie behave the way he does? We never really know, but even worse, we don't have much reason to care.