Richard Linklater's Bernie is the rarest of rarities: a truly unexpected film. It might be classified as a black comedy, for it deals with the murder of an 81-year-old woman in a fashion that is not exactly tragic. But unlike most movies that fall under that label, it never indulges in flagrant naughty posturing, nor does it offer the viewer a firm, comfortable point of view from which to sit back and bear witness.
The script for Bernie was in part dictated from the stand: In a 1997 murder trial in Carthage, Texas, Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede confessed to the shooting of his benefactress, millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent. Tiede, a former mortician 43 years Nugent's junior, had become her constant companion shortly after their meeting at the 1990 funeral of her oilman husband. Tiede testified that Nugent kept him on an increasingly short leash as, through the years, the relationship turned to servitude. Following what Tiede described as a breaking-point, impulse killing — four shots into Nugent's back with a .22 rifle — he hid her body and, already well-established as her public face around Carthage, commenced with uncharacteristic acts of philanthropy, giving away Nugent's money and becoming a sort-of Robin Hood figure in the process.
Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the screenplay for Bernie with Linklater, described all of this in a 1998 Texas Monthly article. Jack Black plays Tiede, Shirley MacLaine is Nugent and Matthew McConaughey is district attorney Danny Buck Davidson. As should be expected of a film with living real-life analogs, those depicted have not been silent: Panola County's Davidson has been a vocal critic of Bernie, while a Nugent nephew, Joe Rhodes, has come out in The New York Times Magazine confirming the basic veracity of the film's defaming portrayal of his aunt.
Among the peculiarities in this case is the fact that so much time — nine months! — could elapse between the killing of Nugent in November 1996 and the discovery of the crime. She was estranged from her family and was by almost all accounts a sour and unpleasant woman, so in the film's version of events, Tiede was the only person besides Nugent's stockbroker who cared to know her whereabouts. MacLaine's Nugent is a crabbed, covetous creature, forever clutching her purse like a floatation device. She develops the same monomaniacal fixation on Bernie, always either looking to him in narrow-eyed wariness or away from him in condemningly silent disappointment.
Having previously done career-high work for Linklater in School of Rock, Black again shows off his triple-threat range in Bernie. Tiede was a soloist at the First United Methodist Church, so we get to see Black singing the Elvis-popularized gospel number "He Touched Me." Tiede was also a leading light in community theater, providing Black with the opportunity to don marching-band regalia in The Music Man.
Black's performance is remarkable for its ability to be at once flamboyant and remote. When Black's Bernie first appears leading a lecture on the art of mortuary science, one is readied for the undertaker-as-high-camp figure, epitomized by Rod Steiger's Mr. Joyboy in Tony Richardson's 1965 The Loved One. But as Bernie continues on the subject of molding a simulacra of life from death — "Relaxed, natural, with a little bit of a smile . . . head perfectly centered, turned ever so slightly to the right, in greeting" — it is evident that something altogether more unsettling is going on, for Bernie is teaching the art of mimicking normalcy.
Does this professional aptitude for sculpting innocuous masks merely out Bernie as a closeted homosexual, practiced in diplomatically negotiating public life in a small town — which Tiede was — or is it the talent of a walk-among-us sociopath in disguise? What is going on behind Bernie's eyes as he sings "Shackled by a heavy burden/'neath a load of guilt and shame"? When, in a bracing smash cut, Bernie is seen performing a spirited rendition of "Seventy-six Trombones" just after he has killed Nugent, are we to interpret this to mean that he's a confidence man who has wrapped Carthage around his finger, as Henry Hill bamboozled River City — or is this only an extreme case of the daily compartmentalization most of us indulge in to stay afloat? These dangling ambiguities and Black's melancholy, finicky characterization are what make Bernie such a chafing, rock-in-the-shoe kind of movie — and I mean this as a compliment.
Bernie's true-crime narrative is further complicated by its bit players, a mix of Texas actors and actual townsfolk — many of whom have nothing but praise for the accused — whose voices provide a chorus of documentary-style direct-address commentary, interviewed on back porches, in greasy spoons and in the chamber of commerce office. (Of the decision to move the trial two counties over, one commentator notes that this was an unprecedented instance of "the state seeking a change of venues because the defendant was so well-liked.") These segments are also a lovingly compiled glossary of Texan vernacular speech — "so sticky-outy," "I'll guaran-damn-tee you," "that dog don't hunt," "our donkey's in a ditch," etc. — and wonderfully funny.
It's hard not to evaluate a film that deals with small-town American life on whether or not it is condescending to its subject or sympathetic toward it — see the discourses around the Coen brothers' Fargo, Christopher Guest comedies, and David Byrne's Texas-set True Stories, all of which Bernie shares some DNA with. But this hang-up with either/or precludes the possibility of a filmmaker holding two conflicting ideas in mind at the same time, just like we do. Such non-binary thinking is necessary to approaching an oddity like Bernie, which, in its multivalent perspectives, is all about irreconcilable facts and foggy motives, not least the contrary demands of forgiveness written in the Bible and the stern punishment written in the law books. In its ornery eccentricity, Bernie spits off more ideas than any American movie in many moons, and it's not reassuringly conclusive about any of them. Cast and crew will be lucky to escape with their careers intact.