Bernie Tiede is one of those impossibly polite, selfless men that could only exist in a small town in east Texas. He brings out the best in people, even after death. As the town’s mortician he takes great pride in the art of dressing corpses for their final outing, and the care and support he offers the mourning relatives makes him one of the most beloved figures in his local community. Everybody loves Bernie.
Nobody loves Marjorie Nugent, though. The bitter widow of an oil baron, she scowls and snaps at anybody who falls into her path. She is the cantankerous wicked witch to Bernie’s doting, doe-eyed Dorothy. She feeds off Bernie’s support following the death of her husband, taking him in and forcing him to become her confidante and slave. There’s only so much even the most generous man can take, but it still came as a great shock to the town of Carthage when, in 1996, Bernie murdered Marjorie. How could this meek, religious man have been driven to shoot an old woman dead? It’s a conundrum, and it’s one Richard Linklater attempts to solve, with great wit, in his latest film Bernie.
Don’t be misled by this film’s colourful veneer. Yes Jack Black brings an easy, gentle humour to the lead role; yes Dick Pope’s cinematography brings out the gloss of the Texan settings; and yes the whole thing has a loosely slapstick feel. But as with most things in Texas, if you push past the surface you’ll find something far bleaker than the bumper stickers let on. This is Linklater’s home state – even if he hails from the “hairy-legged, hippy liberal” city of Austin – and lord knows he’s a man with a knack for exploring dark issues in an exciting and aesthetic way.
Shirley MacLaine’s performance as the evil widow is a perfect example of what this film has to offer. She seems at first like a simple cold, bitter Victorian grandmother, but look closer and you’ll see the cracks and squints and watery eyes of a lonely old woman. It’s the things left unsaid that quietly stir the emotions and spark a moral quandary. It’s a film you can get through without thinking, but somehow you’ll still feel uneasy by the end.
Linklater has chosen to frame the film as a semi-documentary, including ‘talking head’ interviews with the townspeople (some of whom are real townspeople from Carthage – oh did I forget to mention this is a true story? These interviews never feel awkward or forced, they are perfectly framed and stooped in pathos as a sort of darkly humorous, bumbling Greek chorus.
All in all, Linklater has created a darkly humorous, easy going film. As simple and stoic as the town in which it is set. But he hasn’t shi rked the responsibility of exploring the deep human issues at the heart of this tragic event. It’s a well-rounded dramatic film taken from a refreshingly uplifting perspective.