Thoughts on Bernie

I caught Richard Linklater’s Bernie this evening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

You probably already know that it’s based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a popular assistant funeral director in a small Texas town. He befriended, possibly seduced, and definitely murdered the richest and meanest widow in the area. You’ve also probably heard that it contains Jack Black’s best performance to date.

It does.

Black’s Bernie is unlike any other person you’re likely to meet–in the movies or in real life–both a caricature and utterly believable. He’s sweet, kind, and patient. He seems to truly care about the bereaved people he comforts as part of his job, yet he’s brilliant at selling them the most expensive casket. His voice and mannerisms suggest that he’s gay, yet you suspect he’s never acted on those urges. He ardently loves Jesus, as well as the people living around him. And he shot an old woman four times in the back and hid her body in a trunk for nine months.

But then, the way Shirley MacLaine plays that old woman, anybody would want to kill her. She’s mean, suspicious of everyone, frowns constantly, and must always have her way. Since she’s rich, she usually gets it. Bernie’s basic goodness melts her cold exterior, and they become close companions and possibly lovers.

The melt doesn’t last, and soon she’s controlling Bernie as she does everyone else. Linklater and screenplay collaborator Skip Hollandsworth make you completely understand Bernie’s action, as well as his guilt after the fact.

Linklater uses actual townspeople as a Greek chorus, addressing the camera directly as they discuss Bernie, Marjorie, their relationship, and the crazy people in other parts of Texas. Mixed in with these real people, actors playing supporting roles (such as Matthew McConaughey as the DA) also speak to the camera from time to time.

I don’t know how accurate the movie is, but it certainly plays fast and loose with the dates. The real murder took place in 1996, yet in the movie, characters use modern smartphones.

The last part of the film concerns the arrest and trial. Bernie is so popular that the DA has to move the trial to another town for any hope of a conviction. The townspeople are cheering for Bernie, and to a certain extent, so are the audience. Linklater has given us a story of a good man who commits a horrible crime and pays the penalty, yet never loses grace.

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