Richard Linklater goes a bit unconventional in recruiting not only a stand-out cast in Shirley MacLaine, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey to star in his dark comedy, true life tale Bernie, but he goes so far as to use a handful of actual participants that lived in the small town of Carthage, Texas to narrate the story. For all intents and purposes, the film works just fine, but it’s more of an innocent and sweet side-story than an actual main attraction kind of film. It earns a few laughs and a couple of smiles, but on a whole just doesn’t offer enough or necessarily work as a feature length film.
The process began for Linklater with a feature story in “Texas Monthly” back in 1998 (read it here), telling of small town funeral director Bernie Tiede (Black) and how he killed a local 81-year-old spinster by the name of Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine). The key to this story, however, isn’t so much the murder, but the town itself and its reaction to the news.
Not only was Mrs. Nugent disliked by most of the town’s 6,500-person population, but Bernie was loved by just about everyone. So when news broke that not only had Bernie killed Mrs. Nugent, but that he had kept it quiet for the better part of nine months, most of them couldn’t believe it and even if they did, the reaction from one such Bernie supporter was to say, “It’s not as bad as people say; he only shot her four times… not five.”
In this sense the film is far more about the people of Carthage, their perception of Bernie and what happened than anything else. Linklater’s decision to use the actual townspeople turns it into just as much a documentary as a fictional retelling of the story. Granted, there are a few exceptions, including McConaughey’s own mother playing one of the Carthage gossips, but as the credits begin to roll it’s quite interesting to see just how many people still stand on Bernie’s side despite what he’s done.
Jack Black fills the role of Bernie perfectly, taking on effeminate characteristics and owning them, convincing you he just may be the nicest and most caring person alive. MacLaine’s performance is hardly in question, her appearance on screen alone is convincing enough, but when it comes to doing what’s necessary to convince the audience she may be one of the worst people to have lived, MacLaine falls right in line. As for McConaughey, at this point I think we can all agree playing a southern lawyer is right up his alley.
Part of the story’s mystery comes when we see how Bernie and Marjorie became rather close. The two traveled together, went to the opera and ultimately began spending large chunks of time together. Seeing how all of this was done on Marjorie’s dime that was enough to raise some eyebrows, but for the most part no one seemed to have cared too much.
However, Marjorie’s negative qualities soon get the best of Bernie, just as they do everyone else, and it almost makes you wonder — Is there ever a justified reason for non-premeditative murder? To ask the people of Carthage you may get a surprising answer in this case, and that is certainly part of this film’s charm, but there just isn’t quite enough to sustain a feature length running time.
I can’t tell if it was the back-and-forth way Linklater plays both sides of the story, using a faux-documentary approach while filling in the blanks with fictional scenes, but I never quite became comfortable with the narrative. The film plays more like a comical “60 Minutes” segment than a feature film and at 104 minutes it just ended up losing steam, feeling episodic and disjointed by the film’s end.
Linklater uses intertitles to keep the viewer abreast of what direction the story is going and the way they’re worded gives further confirmation as to who this story is actually about. Despite the film’s title, this could just as easily been Carthage. Bernie and Marjorie’s story, however, eventually muddy the water sas the film begins to lose focus considering the town’s reaction and the actual goings on don’t always go hand-in-hand.
The narrative being played out between Bernie and Marjorie seems like one movie and the impromptu interviews with the townsfolk feels like another, neither of which could sustain a feature just as much as they don’t entirely work together.
Bernie could have worked as a short form documentary or an all-out fictional re-telling, but, as is, it’s cute, mildly comedic and somewhat satisfying, but not a film you need to rush to see.