Whatever else you want to say about filmmaker Richard Linklater, it has to be admitted he knows his home state of Texas pretty well — particularly the out-of-the-way, hard-to-reach spots like Carthage, a town of 6,779 located “behind the Pine Curtain” in East Texas.
Carthage, the “Gas Capital of the United States” and home of the Texas Country Music Hall of Fame (C&W singers Tex Ritter and Jim Reeves grew up nearby), is the sort of small town that exists throughout the US, where everybody knows your name and there’s no such thing as “none of your business.” In Linklater’s howlingly funny Bernie, we get a triple shot of East Texas flavor. The story is true; the acting of Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey fits it like a pair of boots; and most delightfully, we get up close and personal with the story’s narrators, the people of Carthage, who essentially play themselves.
Spoiler alert! Stop reading here if you want to be completely surprised by the plot — even though the real-life story of Bernie Tiede (Black) and Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine) has been public since 1996. That was when 37-year-old assistant funeral director Bernie confessed to police that he shot 81-year-old widow Marjorie four times in the back and stuffed her body into the deep freeze in her garage. Nothing like a crime of passion to turn a comedy “dark.” Linklater read about the case in writer Skip Hollandsworth’s Texas Monthly feature story in 1998, and the two joined forces.
Black plays Bernie as a classic small-town sissy, an effeminate bachelor who fusses over his deceased customers (à la Mr. Joyboy in The Loved One) and organizes little-theater musical productions. A character like that might be expected to get himself martyred in the Bible Belt, but Bernie is such a nice guy, volunteering for charities and singing in the church choir, that the worst anyone can say about him is that he’s “peachy and sweet” — even when he becomes the best friend and confidant of Mrs. Nugent, the grouchiest rich old lady in town. Black, star of Linklater’s School of Rock and pioneer impersonator of the now-ubiquitous “bearded, fat, dumb dude” in young-male comedies, goes all out with Bernie, and so does MacLaine. Marjorie’s the sort of woman who doesn’t like to be touched and who torments anyone who works for her — like long-suffering stock broker Lloyd Hornbuckle (Richard Robichaux) or obsequious Bernie, who brings Marjorie goodies after burying her husband and ends up as her unpaid servant/lapdog. But even lapdogs sometimes bite back.
People in Carthage think Marjorie is a “mean old heifer.” In fact, Linklater’s Greek chorus of townsfolk — played by a brilliantly cast bunch of pros and non-actors with the all-important twang — has colorful opinions of every character in the story, from the overly ambitious DA Danny Buck Davidson (fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey) to the “cousin-counting” residents of the neighboring town of San Augustine, “Squirrel-Hunting Capital of the World,” who have “more tattoos than teeth.” It is unknown whether Linklater and Hollandsworth wrote the marvelous string of wisecracks the talking heads deal out. We’d love to believe that Kay McConaughey (Matthew’s real-life mother), Glenda Jones, and the rest of the uproarious Carthaginians actually made up their own lines. If indeed Bernie is Linklater’s Fargo (he was born and raised in Houston), he did the homefolks right. “I’d never seen a movie told from the perspective of a group of gossips,” claims the filmmaker in the press notes. Wise choice.
If Linklater’s wide-ranging filmography — Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, Me and Orson Welles — has a common denominator, it’s the search for realistic personality at ground level. Bernie has personality coming out of its ears. Black’s showboat performance reminds us why we thought he was so special in the first place. MacLaine proves once again she’s one of Hollywood’s greatest scene-stealers. But the true stars are the homegrown tongue-waggers. The late, great political columnist Molly Ivins once wrote about Texas state legislators: “If you think these people are crazy, you should see their constituents.” I believe Ivins meant that at least partly affectionately, and so does Linklater. Long may they gab.