Immediately, Bernie doesn’t seem like much of a film beyond the performance of Jack Black in the titular role. Based on Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly article “Midnight In the Garden of East Texas,” the pseudo-documentary style director Richard Linklater brings to the story of genteel assistant funeral director turned murderer Bernie Tiede (Black) seems destined to keep things small potatoes. Beyond the core cast, Bernie fills itself out with character actors and townsfolk, talking into the camera about a beloved community figure—devout christian, endlessly charitable, patron of the arts—who nobody believes is capable of grisly murder. Yes, Bernie is a film buoyed by Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine, but as the community continues to assert Bernie’s innocence (despite his tearful confession), it’s clear that Linklater’s aim is not merely strong, character driven drama, but the portraiture of a town driven temporarily insane by its passion for a favorite son.
Bernie is most certainly guilty, but what he’s guilty of beyond the murder of curmudgeonly millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine) is the question the townsfolk pose to exasperated D.A. Danny Buck (McConaughey). Figuring that Bernie is otherwise “too light in the loafers” to shoot someone in cold blood, they propose that he must have been temporarily insane to shoot Nugent in the back and stuff her in the freezer. It’s a fair point, one that Linklater is careful to examine. Bernie, who routinely dotes upon the little old ladies of his church, the newly widowed women who happen into his funeral home, gives his life to Nugent. As the owner of a prominent local bank, she’s the kind of person who’d shred a person’s loan application before thinking to look at it. Is it Bernie’s persistance that wins her over, or does she see in him a simpleton rube, a man she can exploit endlessly and without complaint? How culpable is Mrs. Nugent in her own demise, the townsfolk ask?
Linklater crafts an extremely effective procedural despite there being little in the way of actual police work. His film acts as an anthropologist, unearthing details of the relationship between Bernie and Nugent—who wouldn’t be driven crazy by someone’s habit of chewing each bite of refried beans 25 times?—and examining a D.A. driven to wit’s end by a city sympathetic towards a confessed killer. McConaughey’s performance is less showy than Black’s—indeed, Linklater seems one of only a few directors well-suited to Jack Black’s bombast and propensity to sing—but serves as an anchoring neutral between the overwhelming niceness of Bernie and the spiteful nastiness of the woman he serves. The townsfolk paint Danny Buck as a guy just seeking reelection at Bernie’s expense, and the way Buck brags about the way he’s nabbed perpetrators in the past, that’s more than a bitter claim. But this case is a no-doubter, something he should be able to sleepwalk through. Instead, he’s assailed in restaurants, pestered at the grocery store, taunted by everybody in town that they’ll acquit Bernie if called to the jury. Sure, it’d be easy to acquit a man like Bernie Tiede, but what kind of justice is that?
It’s the trial of Bernie Tiede that serves as the best scene here. After moving the case to a different county, Danny Buck does everything he can to paint Bernie as a big city liberal, and Bernie plays right into his hands. His love of theatre, the vacations he and Mrs. Nugent took to New York, the first class seats on the plane to the city—outside of Carthage, away from those who know him and his victim, Bernie’s a freak, a man who murdered and old lady for her considerable fortune. It’s brilliant, the way Buck barbecues Bernie, and the disbelief with which the accused responds is genuine. He’ll admit to being a murderer, but a monster? Hardly.
Bernie. With Jack Black (Bernie Tiede), Shirley MacLaine (Marjorie Nugent), and Matthew McConaughey (Danny Buck). Directed by Richard Linklater from a screenplay by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on the Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Hollandsworth.