I had a quite a unique experience when watching Bernie. The entire time I was sitting in the theater, I was thinking to myself, “Wow, Linklater is a genius for using documentary aesthetics and structure to tell the story. And the actors participating in the interviews are SUPERB! So natural!”. However, when the credits rolled and we saw the real Bernie, I was shocked. My friend who went me with pointed out that at the beginning of the film they announced THIS IS A TRUE STORY. How the hell did I miss that?! It doesn’t matter though, because the experience was my own and only made me appreciate the film more.
Bernie, played to perfection by Jack Black, is an assistant funeral director (a fancy name for a mortician) and a devoted member of the community of Carthage, Texas. When he’s not decorating the deceased, Bernie is participating in all other aspects of the funeral services. He sings the hymns, delivers the sermons, and comforts the family with the generosity of his spirit and hospitality. For example, out of the goodness of his heart, he drops by to deliver gifts and condolences to the mourning families long after the funeral is over. It is on one these trips that he first befriends Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Marjorie is the Boo Radley of Carthage if Boo, instead of being a scary figure no one really knows, was instead an evil bitch that everyone in town wished they didn’t know. She ends up hiring Bernie to help her with every aspect of her daily life and to accompany her on exotic trips throughout the world. This leads to Bernie becoming her sole benefactor.
Over time though, Marjorie begins to treat Bernie like every other patron of their small, East Texan town. He begins to feel trapped, imprisoned in Marjorie’s life, as she beings to slowly take away his freedoms. No longer can Bernie fully commit himself to the church or to the local musicals he’s been directing and acting in; she is sucking all the enjoyment out of Bernie’s life. This is almost painful to watch because Bernie is the type of man who can find enjoyment in just about anything, proven with his enthusiasm towards dealing with the dead. He cracks for only a brief moment, but in this moment he manages to shoot Marjorie in the back four times and stuff her body in a freezer for nine months.
The Bernie we’ve come to love is back. He uses the money he has inherited for good; helping local, struggling businesses, sponsering a youth baseball team, and donating the money to build the new prayer wing that the church has been desperate for. Everyone is happy because they have their Bernie back and he’s happy because once again he can spend time with his friends. Of course, he is lying to everyone in town, telling them that Marjorie is ill and away to get better. This lie works, except on one man, and that’s Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), Carthage’s DA.
I can’t help but think of Errol Morris’s documentary, The Thin Blue Line, while watching Bernie. Like that film, Bernie uses interviews from real subjects while also “recreating” the events of the crime. Both films use pathos in an attempt bring the audience in and turn us into an unrecognized jury. Richard Linklater’s (writer/director) choice to use this pseudo documentary approach is a stroke of genius to say the least, putting a pleasant spin on the BASED ON TRUE EVENTS narratives. Jack Black is at his best in the role of Bernie and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up getting recognized come awards season. He ever so elegantly brought me into a world of real people, good people, and by the end of the film, I wasn’t ready to leave.