Everybody loved Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the friendliest, most caring undertaker in Carthage, Texas. He was attentive to his job, active in his church, supportive of local culture and felicitous of little old ladies. In fact, he became quite close with one in particular: Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), one of the richest (and meanest) ladies in town. While their cozy relationship surprised the gossipy townspeople, it was nothing compared to the shock that came when Marjorie’s corpse turned up in a freezer—and Bernie was charged with her murder.
Based on a true story, Bernie blends fact and fiction seamlessly and delightfully. It’s played as comedy, not melodrama. This doesn’t mean that murder is played for laughs; it means that, like the best black comedy, it cuts hard and deep.
Bernie is a people person, and Black gets at the mysterious mix of genuine kindness, neediness and self-interest that make the character so difficult to fathom. We like Bernie as much as his Carthage neighbors do. MacLaine plays Marjorie with a canny mix of selfishness and wounded pride. Her deadpan cruelty is funny, and her paranoid rantings are convincing. And in those few moments when Marjorie is happy, and beaming, MacLaine breaks your heart.
The film’s comic scene-stealer, however, is Matthew McConaughey as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson. Davidson’s a law-and-order showboat with a bad haircut and a ridiculous pair of glasses (the Goddamned glasses are award-worthy), but he’s no fool. He soon realizes that the good people of Carthage would never convict Bernie of first-degree murder, so he devises a way to get around this inconvenience.
Director Richard Linklater manages as delightful a blend of big-name actors and nonacting “real people” as I’ve ever seen. The story is told in flashback by a Greek chorus of townspeople, who fill us in on the various peculiarities of Texas geography and culture, and (crucially) give us their views on Bernie and Marjorie. The blend is so perfect that when the end credits rolled, I discovered that one character I thought was “real” was an actor, and another I assumed was an actor was “real.”
What ultimately makes Bernie work so well is Linklater’s evident love of Texas, and his genuine respect for even the most ridiculous people in Carthage. As a result of this evenhandedness, the film presents a nuanced view of religion and class that’s rare in indie cinema. It’s an instant Americana classic.