Texas-born Richard Linklater is one of those rare filmmakers whose work never fails to fascinate. Unconvinced? Here’s a few titles: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Waking Life, School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Me and Orson Welles. Now let’s get on with his latest spellbinder.
Bernie is based on a true story. It really is. Want just the facts? Here goes: In 1997, in the town of Carthage, Texas, the body of rich, notoriously bitchy widow Marjorie Nugent, 81, was found at the bottom of her freezer with four bullets in her back. Later, notoriously nice funeral director Bernie Tiede confessed to the murder. District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson took Bernie to court and won a conviction.
End of story. Or it would be if Linklater hadn’t decided to craft Bernie’s tale into one of the gentlest true-crime stories ever to find its way to celluloid. As played by Jack Black, in an award-caliber performance, Bernie is everything you’d want in a friend. Oh, he’s a little fastidious in his habits as an assistant funeral director, a little bizarre in his obsession with Carthage’s old ladies at the expense of dating younger women. But Bernie even charms Marjorie, played by a terrific Shirley MacLaine as the ultimate Grinch. Bernie manages to soften her, as he becomes her constant companion, especially on the lavish vacations she pays for. But when Marjorie turns her temper on Bernie, he snaps and picks up that rifle, causing the DA (Matthew McConaughey in top form) to bury him in court.
A Linklater inspiration in adapting Bernie’s story, with the help of journalist Skip Hollandsworth, was to include interviews with the Carthage townsfolk whose wit and wisdom make you think of Our Town as directed by Christopher Guest. No use trying to describe Bernie. It’s a one-of-a-kind inspiration. You will never feel closer to a convicted killer.