SXSW 2012 Review: ‘Bernie,’ The Nicest Murderer You’ll Ever Meet
Bernie is director Richard Linklater’s most accessible film in years. It falls somewhere in the middle between his commercial features and his more experimental works as a splendid mix of both sensibilities. Bernie is hilarious, clever, sweet, thought-provoking, and a fine example of the most interesting type of comedy.
Set in Carthage, East Texas, the true-life story follows Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede (Jack Black), a happy-go-lucky member of the community. He’s about as well-liked as they come and the type of guy who would never hurt a fly. Bernie, a local mortician, is also a mystery. The only people he has any known relationships with are the old widows he comforts. Are his intentions sexual? The film doesn’t say. When the most disliked member of his community, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), loses her husband, Bernie tries to prove she isn’t the horrid person everyone makes her out to be.
For a while, Bernie proves himself right. After a rough introduction, Marjorie and Bernie become “partners.” They do everything together. Like Bernie’s previous connections to widows, the nature of his relationship with Marjorie is unknown. What is known is how inseparable the two are, at least until their relationship takes a downward spiral. At some point, for whatever reason, Marjorie begins to run Bernie’s life, treating him like a child and torturing him in the littlest ways possible. One day, Bernie snaps and he kills Marjorie in a quick burst of violence.
Even with that dark turn of the events, there’s always a high level of empathy and care shown for the titular lead. Jack Black makes you love this murderer, and without ever feeling uncomfortable about it. There’s such a gentle charisma and warmness to Bernie. You laugh at his expressions and child-like worldview, but you laugh out of love for this good-hearted guy. The film tries to question whether all of Bernie’s motives are well-intentioned, but it’s hard to dismiss that the Bernie we see is an all-around great guy.
But perhaps that’s the point. Maybe Linklater wants to us to completely scoff at the idea of Bernie having a monster in him, like the residents of the town he resides in. Linklater builds a genuine sense of community using a faux-documentary approach, and the director gets you on the side of those Carthage residents: Bernie’s a terrific guy and Marjorie Nugent is pure evil.
Linklater has the film represent the views, rumors, and ideas of the residents of Carthage. The only character who sees things for what they are is Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), a self-serious but comical DA who serves as the semi-moral compass of the film. To him, Bernie committed murder, and that’s all there is to it. When Davidson enters the picture it becomes somewhat of “trial” movie. At one point it seems as if the film’s slowing down, but then Davidson gives the greatest pronunciation of Les Misérables you’ll ever hear, infusing the highest amount of energy into the film.
Davidson isn’t the straight man of the film, so there remains a consistency of goofiness all throughout the more serious matters. Linklater’s film isn’t a deep psychological examination on what will drive a good man crazy, so if you’re looking for that dark indie drama, go elsewhere. Instead he’s made a movie about funny people going through a not-so-funny situation, not an easy tone to pull off but Linklater does it just right.
By the end, Bernie will raise discussion as to which side of the coin you agree with. Yes, the character committed murder, but he is clearly no menace to society. However, perhaps I wouldn’t think that if Bernie wasn’t such a charming and sweet character. Maybe if he was a creepy or awkward guy I would solely see him as a murderer, and not a great guy who did something bad. It’s a thought-provoking topic Bernie raises, and the film achieves that through plenty of laughs and heart.
The Upside: Jack Black’s fantastic performance; Matthew McConaughey’s goofy charisma; a sharp sense of humor.
The Downside: The second act could use tightening.
On the Side: The co-writer of the film, Skip Hollandsworth, wrote an article that inspired the film.