Bernie crowbars open an industriously erudite window into the small-mindedness of yokelian America, glancing within its bucolic milieu to uncover a sense of community that is as commendable as it is disturbing. Based on the bizarre events that occurred in Carthage—a tiny gas refuge tucked under the armpit of Texas—in 1996/97, Bernie is one of those “it could only happen in America” true stories that is so unbelievable that it has to be made into a movie.
Framed from the hip as a square-shooting mockumentary, and featuring a cornfed mix of real Carthaginian townspeople and local actors, director Richard Linklater religiously captures the kind of honest, unembellished small-town hypocrisy that allows God-fearing churchgoers to innocuously smear reputations between Sunday prayers at Bible group. These warm-hearted folk build a profile case for Bernie (Jack Black), the beloved mortician at the centre of this grave affair, in short, sharp, single-camera sound bites that pathologise Bernie as an immensely popular, impeccable member of the Carthage community. His valorisation allows him enormous licence, which, coupled with his extraordinary generosity, rallies the town around him when he is accused of committing a major crime.
Co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, who detailed the astonishing events surrounding Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede in the 1998 article, Midnight in the Garden of East Texas, the raw screen adaptation of Bernie allows an intriguing insight into the duality and moral selectivity of human nature. But where the film is thematically, and technically impressive, performances by Jack Black—as the curiously effeminate Bernie—and Shirley MacLaine as a miserly, dour-faced wretch despised by the town, are both outstanding. Likewise, Matthew McConaughey is the grits as local sheriff, Danny Buck.
Bernie is an unusually restrained dramatisation that, like a car crash at a revhead’s funeral, is bitterly ironic and impossible not to notice. As Bernie himself says, “you don’t want to go turning tragedy into comedy”, but when you do, it is dead funny.
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey