“If the people of Carthage were to make a list of who they thought would get to heaven, Bernie would be at the top of the list”.
Re-uniting with actor Jack Black for the first time since their successful previous venture, School of Rock (2003) and for the third time with Matthew McConaughey, after Dazed & Confused (1993) and The Newton Boys (1998), Richard Linklater’s latest picture tells the true story of assistant funeral director Bernie Tiebe, “the most popular man in Carthage”, sent to prison for the murder of a wealthy elderly widow with whom he’d set up home in a hermetic Texan community “listed in The Best Towns in America, Vol. 2”. Intercutting its dramatization of events with a series of talking head interviews with members of the town, its structure is reminiscent of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, capturing small-town prejudices and idiosyncrasies with either warmth or semi-ironic detachment.
It’s a hit-and-miss approach that works both for and against the film; a native Texan, Linklater has a keen eye for the details of his own corner of Americana, creating a strong sense of both place and community through the interviews, but at the expense of constantly being told rather than shown both narrative and character details. It’s a problem exacerbated by the intertitles that punctuate the film, asking “Who is Bernie?” or “Was Bernie gay?” which whilst subjected to scrutiny by the cast of townspeople, are barely addressed by Jack Black’s superficial performance. Black has always been an actor reliant on physicality to sell a role, and it’s as much the case here, seemingly more interested in ‘performing’ than truly getting under Bernie’s skin and imbuing him with any psychological depth. Bernie is clearly a man of many contradictions, an effeminate, seemingly asexual character with a penchant for “DLOLs”, Dear Little Old Ladies, involved in every aspect of a community quick to rally round in support when he finds himself accused of murder. We’re expected to take Bernie’s relationship with the irascible Mrs Nugent (Shirley McClaine) at face value, both script and performance failing to provide any sense of ambiguity as to his motives, even after she’s treated him to numerous holidays and given him power of attorney. Her accountant (Richard Robichaux) is suspicious of his actions, as is self-obsessed district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey), but Linklater seems content to take the side of the community, presenting Bernie just as he outwardly presents himself, as a good Christian man who had a momentary lapse of all-round goodness.
It’s an issue not helped by Shirley McClaine’s pantomime performance, playing her description as a “mean old hateful bitch” and little else, too easily allowing the audience to side with the town’s sympathy for Bernie, and again offering little that explores the nature of their relationship beyond anecdotal evidence. If the DA and the accountant were right in their assumptions of Bernie’s ulterior motives, with Mrs Nugent no longer around to offer any corroborative evidence, it would appear that Linklater and Black (seen with the real Bernie Tiebe in the closing credits) were as seduced by this charismatic enigma as the rest of Carthage, choosing to present the protagonist of their film much as he chose to present himself in real life.
By removing any of the questions as to Bernie’s character and motivations, the film ultimately lacks any real drama, coasting along on its small town charm. I’m sure the people of Carthage would find Bernie a treat, connected as they are to the narrative, but it fails as a character study of its eponymous figure, the only real satisfaction deriving from the portrait of an insular, god-fearing community, albeit one on which Linklater seems not to have quite made up his mind as to where he stands. If he’d have dropped the dramatization and made Bernie a documentary, he may have had more of an opportunity to find out.
Bernie – 2011 – USA – 104 mins – Dir : Richard Linklater
Bernie plays at the London Film Festival on 22nd & 23rd October.
Tickets are available here