Richard Linklater gets exceptional performances from Jack Black and others in this true-crime dramedy
Jack Black has the title role in Richard Linklater’s Bernie. It’s not at all a typical role for him, but he delivers an exceptionally fine performance as the pivotal figure in the film’s offbeat gallery of small-town characters.
As such, Black’s Bernie Tiede is the focal point in what is also a droll, quirky account of a very peculiar real-life incident that occurred in the small East Texas town of Carthage in 1997. But Bernie is no one-man show.
Linklater presents the story of that incident, and of Bernie himself, in friskily varied form—part comic documentary, part courtroom drama, part true-crime farce. The cast includes Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey in key roles, but part of the film’s special charm comes from the casting of assorted local folk as the townspeople who comment on various aspects of Bernie’s time as a remarkably kind and public-spirited mortician in Carthage.
The crucial twist in all this is that Bernie ends up being charged with murder. The victim is Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), a wealthy widow and a thoroughly disagreeable person to whom Bernie becomes a constant companion and helpmate. And yet there is no conventional murder mystery here—Bernie freely confesses once the body is discovered in a freezer in the Nugent garage.
Other kinds of mystery enliven the film’s enigmatic portraiture and the eccentric comedy that goes with it. Bernie is an angelic oddball with no proclivity for violence of any sort, and the townspeople are more or less unanimous in protesting his innocence even in the face of his own confession.
MacLaine’s unlamented widow, who warms up only briefly after a little coaxing from Bernie, is impeccably dour. The local folks’ cameo commentaries are a delightful stew of country accents and salty sarcasm. Black’s Bernie, best of all, is a little miracle of mincing buffoonery so gently underplayed that his courtly naïveté seems almost saintly.