Let's get one thing out of the way: Bernie is about much more than a real-life murder.
''What you're fixin' to see is a true story,'' a title card promises at the film's onset, and ultimately, that story is much wilder than the mystery of how, in 1996, an 81-year-old heiress was stuffed into a freezer with four bullets in her back. (Yes, even wilder than that.) Bernie, at its heart, is a dark comedy about small-town culture in East Texas, and how one man was so beloved within one of those rural communities that even his confession couldn't convince folk he could kill.
Bernie: MacLaine and Black
Of course, anybody who's read Midnight in the Garden of East Texas already knows that. Written by Texas Monthly reporter Skip Hollandsworth, the story weaves together the down-home characters of Carthage, Texas, who rallied around Bernie Tiede, a 39-year-old assistant funeral director (and maybe, possibly, a closeted gay man), after he was arrested for murdering Marjorie Nugent, the millionaire widow who befriended him and became his close companion. The two were inseparable for five years – Nugent, perhaps out of spite for her family, even revised her will to make Tiede her sole benefactor – until, seemingly out of the blue, he shot her.
But, here's the rub: While her body was icing over in a freezer, Tiede spent Nugent's millions on Carthage and its residents. A fervent theater fan, he turned the community theater into a first-rate production. He bought homes and cars for friends. He funded a renovation of the local Methodist church. Before he was caught, the quiet little town of 7,000 even had its own airport. Tiede was so well regarded that Buck Davidson, the district attorney prosecuting the case, had to move his trial nearly 50 miles away from Carthage to avoid an acquittal.
In print, all of this adds up to quite a difficult story to tell. (And, for the record, Hollandsworth pulled it off.) But on film, that job seems damn near impossible. How could a movie balance the absurd hilarity of Carthage with the glum reality of murder? Or depict the blind support of Tiede within a believable narrative? And, above all else, find the right actor to play him?
Enter Richard Linklater. The director, who's best known for Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, had the genius idea to blend reality into his adaptation by interviewing real-life gossips who live in Carthage and knew Tiede and Nugent. It's an incredibly risky move, and it pays off mightily. By cutting in those sound bites between scenes – mockumentary flair, as it were – Linklater lends Bernie the authority generally reserved for legitimate documentaries, all while the Hollywood likes of Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey parade around as Tiede, Nugent and Davidson, respectively.
Although that trio deserves just as much credit for what Bernie accomplishes. While MacLaine and McConaughey back him up with some awfully good work of their own, Black is a bona fide revelation as the titular lead, scaling back his typical eye-bugging shtick to turn in a performance that's as thoughtful as it is unexpected. His Tiede seems every bit as odd and charming as the real deal, with the added bonus that Black clearly has a ball with the character's quirks. Whether he's singing country-tinged gospel songs in his car or teaching apprentice morticians how to embalm and prepare a body for viewing, Black's totally invested in the role. You wouldn't realize it from his last decade of work, but Bernie is a heartening reminder of how good Black can be when he's not saddled with outrageous mania.
The marriage between top-notch acting and real-life narration, ultimately, is what lifts Bernie beyond its torn-from-the-headlines premise. It's dripping with Linklater's distinctive wit and laid-back charm, all while realizing the not-so-enviable task of making murder funny, but Bernie's best trick is employing actors and civilians, side by side, to tell this story. I'd say that's an appropriate tribute for such a tall tale.