Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a movie that’s likely to confound expectations no matter what angle you approach it from. Anyone familiar with the director would probably know not to expect a typical Jack Black vehicle, but this isn’t necessarily the kind of film one might expect Linklater to make either.
Part of that is likely due to the story’s real-life origins — a bizarre tale of friendship and murder in small-town Texas — and a fair amount of advance buzz that this was the kind of film you wanted to go in knowing nothing about. I’d say that’s fair advice for most films, but here, it implies a serpentine narrative that doesn’t exactly emerge. Linklater isn’t looking to indulge in copious twists and turns, shock and awe — he’s generally been more interested in character and milieu than plot anyway, and in that sense, Bernie is a very typical Linklater film.
Black, doing career-best work, stars as Bernie Tiede, a skillful and compassionate mortician in Carthage, Texas, who can prepare a body for open casket and deliver a funeral sermon with equal grace and aplomb. He’s universally beloved, except for the hardened and extremely wealthy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who has little patience for anyone. But after her husband dies, Bernie worms his way into her life with a persistent campaign of kindness, and soon, the two have become inseparable bosom buddies, causing the entire town to question the nature of the relationship.
Speaking of the entire town, it’s really the main character of the film. Linklater cast a number of real Carthage residents to play themselves, and the film often pauses for Greek-chorus-like input from the Carthaginians via talking head interviews. Initially, one might suspect an attempt to pad the running time, but it becomes clear how vital these interjections are, distilling the essence of small-town living via a compelling mixture of fiction and Errol Morris-like documentary.