Sustaining a tone so affectionate you have to squint to make out its darkly comic undertow, Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” recounts the strange story of perhaps the most likable killer in Texas history and the curious lack of outrage his crime incited. Pitch-perfect performances by Shirley MacLaine and an unusually restrained Jack Black hold together this offbeat true-crime saga, but Linklater’s keen eye for human eccentricity flowers most memorably on the periphery, in colorful but never condescending mock-doc interviews that make this a vivid work of small-town portraiture. Peculiar subject matter and genial, non-sensationalistic execution spell fair commercial prospects.
The upscale East Texas town of Carthage drew unexpected headlines in August 1997 when the body of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, the wealthiest widow in a town not lacking in same, was discovered at the bottom of her own freezer. Police soon extracted a confession from a very cooperative Bernie Tiede, a mortician who had become Nugent’s best friend, business manager and sole beneficiary.
Though drawn from Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 article on the crime (Linklater and Hollandsworth co-scripted), “Bernie” provides little early indication of the dark direction in which it’s headed. The opening scene does establish an implicit link between the protagonist and death, as portly, mustachioed Bernie (Black) methodically grooms a corpse for an open-casket memorial service. Yet rather than any sense of morbid foreshadowing, what comes through in this marvelously detailed sequence is Bernie’s fastidiousness and intelligence, his compassionate, dignified handling of his subject, and the boundless pride he takes in a job well done.
These qualities have endeared him to the other residents of Carthage, who address the camera directly as they describe Bernie’s strong Christian faith, his devotion to his work and his tireless efforts to improve the community above and beyond his duties as an assistant funeral director. They continue to speak in warm, glowing terms even as less flattering details ripple to the surface: the inordinate interest he seems to take in Carthage’s elderly widow population; his ambiguous sexuality, signaled by his cultural sophistication and slightly effeminate mannerisms; and the increasingly strange nature of his relationship with the hateful, widely hated Marjorie Nugent, or Margie (MacLaine).
Taking an almost immediate liking to the first person in ages to show her any kindness, Margie brings Bernie into her gated home and makes him her constant companion, treating him to nights at the opera and expensive vacations. But as gossip spreads of a possible romantic entanglement between the unlikely couple, Margie becomes increasingly unreasonable and Norma Desmond-like in her jealous demands on Bernie’s time.
Pic’s midsection reps a credible, engrossing and well-observed account of the growth and decline of an ultimately tragic relationship, building to a discreet act of violence in which most viewers’ sympathies will be fairly evenly distributed. Even as the case unravels, the town is so unwavering in its support of Bernie that district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), one of the few Carthage residents who view the defendant as a conniving phony, has a difficult time building a case.
There’s a limit to the insight one can glean from this generally straightforward docudrama approach, and the film’s widow-killer scenario will strike many viewers as a touch familiar, at times even banal. Indeed, “Bernie” would be a far lesser thing without the lively input of its enormous supporting cast, and it’s in these connective moments that Linklater’s real interest in the case clearly lies.
Always a close listener and observer, the sort of filmmaker who delights in being surprised by the things his characters say (even though much of the dialogue here is on the record), Linklater directs these faux interviews with great warmth, humor and gusto, suggesting a softer, less quippy version of a Christopher Guest mockumentary. With their refreshingly imperfect features and unconcealed wrinkles, these actors convey a down-to-earth (often laugh-out-loud) normalcy one doesn’t often see onscreen, and it’s typical of Linklater’s integrity that he doesn’t portray them as hicks and rubes but rather as founts of practical wisdom, plain-spoken Southern eloquence and genuine if arguably misplaced compassion.
That’s not to give short shrift to the picture’s top-billed pros. Facing the twofold challenge of playing a sympathetic killer and overcoming viewer resistance to his usually outsized comic persona, Black rises to the occasion with an impeccably controlled turn as the fey, articulate and very likable Bernie, a role that allows him to make excellent use of his singing voice (Tiede was actively involved in community musical theater). MacLaine makes a superb shrew in a role that, while necessarily and poignantly truncated, warranted more screen time for the too-little-seen actress. And McConaughey seems to have hit his career stride playing criminal attorneys, judging by his recent work in “The Lincoln Lawyer” and this equally sharp if smaller turn as local killjoy and moral authority.
Formally, “Bernie” is pure pleasure, as d.p. Dick Pope’s precise compositions and Sandra Adair’s measured editing allow story, principals and background players to breathe. Bruce Curtis’ production design perfectly conjures the story’s distinct, and distinctly appealing, small-town milieu (pic was shot in East Texas), aided by a soundtrack consisting mostly of twangy hymns. Involvement of more than 20 credited producers makes the film’s all-around cohesion all the more impressive.