The truer than fiction story of a charismatic assistant funeral director who finds himself in a sensationalized crime that tears apart the allegiances of the gossipy townsfolk of a small town in Texas has become a minor sensation. It’s the little film that could in the independent film world. At the time of gargantuan summer super hero films 'Bernie' coasted under the radar, found its niche and garnered an impressive $9 million+ at the box office.
Bernie (2012) dir. Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley Maclean, Matthew McConaughey
By Alan Bacchus
Bernie is described as a non-resident, who for some reason moved to the small town of Carthage, TX, a place most people want to leave. As a smooth talker naturally he finds a job as a salesman, but in a funeral home. He's very successful, someone meticulous enough to dress the corpses, talented enough to sing lovely gospel songs at the ceremonies and warm-hearted enough to be able to grieve harmoniously with the older widows, but also smooth enough to upsell them on the funeral amenities.
While he charms all the older ladies in town, Bernie sets out to please the bitchiest woman in town, Marge Nugent (Mclean), a widow with some wealth but stingy and vicious. Bernie is a glutton for punishment but manages to cozy up close enough to be her personal assistant. However, Bernie reaches a breaking point, murders the old hag and spends the next nine months covering up her disappearance. A sensationalized trial sets the record straight, but many in the community, despite the opinion of the law, refuse to believe their beloved Bernie is a murderer.
Jack Black as Bernie carries this film as impressively as anything in his body of work. His performance as the affable and charming title character is wonderfully nuanced. The details about Bernie, Nugent and the story are told by the descriptions from the townsfolk in Carthage, real people shown in traditional documentary talking head interviews. The unconventionality of this approach aids in anchoring this story in reality.
Rich in theme, Bernie also becomes a film about identity and deception, specifically for Bernie, who is both open and welcome but also a subtly closeted homosexual gossiped about by the community but not rejected or shunned. The prevalence of the church complements the town’s skepticism of the proven facts of the case. Like their unwavering devotion to God, Carthage refuses to accept even the most heinous and glaring details of Bernie’s case.
Matthew McConaughey plays the town solicitor who prosecutes Bernie. He fits in well with the small town flavour, dressing himself down with unstylish policeman glasses and a cumbersome six gallon hat. He also has a personality as bold and absurd as Bernie’s. And Shirley Maclean is a welcomed return to cinema, chewing her role as the maniacal superbitch Marge Nugent.
But it’s Jack Black’s understated performance that puts the twinkle in this modest little indie gem.
Bernie is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.