At times feeling less like a based-on-a-true story narrative film and more like an extended re-enactment documentary, Bernie quietly undermines traditional approaches to crime dramas and black comedy. The film is co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” that the film is based on, and it casts actual townspeople who were around at the time the real story took place as talking head interviewees. The commentary provided by the townspeople feels partly like a Greek Chorus and partly like footage from a mockumentary. Once combined with the scripted drama the result is an unconventional exercise in factual fiction by director and co-writer Richard Linklater.
The titular character is Bernie Tiede, an effeminate assistant funeral director who in the mid 1990s had seemingly charmed the entire Texan town of Carthage with his generosity, kindness, refinement and empathy. Linklater has previously worked with actor Jack Black on The School of Rock (2003) where Black’s slacker party-animal persona was used to its full potential. As the lead in Bernie Black delivers a restrained performance in a role that could have been played broadly, but is instead carefully measured. There’s little of the mania that Black can be capable of and instead what emerges is a mysterious character of ambiguous motivation. In the conservative town the film is set in, Bernie certainly stands out as an oddity and yet Black convinces the audience the Bernie was able to seduce the locals despite being so relatively unusual. His charity makes him almost too good to be true and as the film builds to the moment when Bernie commits the crime that inspired the original article, it is unknown if his over-the-top care for widowed old ladies is due to true affection or something more mercenary.
Supporting actors are also strong. As Marjorie Nugent, Shirley MacLaine is pitiful and contemptible as the wealthy widow who makes life miserable for the rest of the town through her greed and meanness. Like so many other aspects in this film her relationship with Bernie is ambiguously defined, although it is clear that a mutually dependent, yet toxic, companionship occurred. Regular Linklater actor Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the kind of character who is typically the hero in such films; however, in Bernie he plays the role of an incredulous ‘outsider’. Despite being somebody from within the community, Danny is a lone figure trying to pursue justice in the face of overbearing community sentiment on Bernie’s side.
Regardless of how premeditated his actions may have been Bernie is presented as a man who yearned to be loved and accepted, which manifested into his extreme generosity with time and money. Linklater’s film reveals very little about the background and motivates of its protagonist to instead demonstrate how a community could rally around him despite the crime he committed and confessed to. If anything it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Even as the film ends it difficult to say if it’s a story about an entire community that was deceived or if it is a story about a remarkable individual who paid dearly for his kindness through one deadly, momentary lapse in reason.