By Joan Ellis
There’s only one way to watch Bernie. Reach deep for whatever feelings you may have for Southern Gothic tales and be grateful you have that sensibility.
If you don’t have it, you may be in for a rough ride. Recall, for example, the scene in the original Crimes of the Heart when a woman is asked why she just shot her husband in the stomach. “Because I didn’t like the way he looked,” was her reply. It’s that sudden, unexpected, inevitable failure of reason that so often runs through Southern family stories, and it’s something you either accept with delight or avoid with relief.
Bernie is all about the significance of civility in the Southern culture and the darker impulses that lie just beneath it. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a slick con man from the first scene forward. The twist is that even he doesn’t know he’s a con man. He is convinced he is the man his public loves. With a very high profile in the town of Carthage, Texas, his public includes all the families who have ever lost a relative or friend to death. Bernie, you see, is the town’s assistant funeral director whose job it is to comfort, console, and deal with the emotional and actual needs of the bereaved. He does so much for them that he sees no disconnect between the grace he aspires to and his own subconscious fraud.
He gives lectures to audiences on the cosmetic preparation of the dead for burial (with grisly detail) and then consoles their survivors. One day, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the town sourpuss, is widowed by the death of her very rich husband. The Greek chorus of town gossips fills us in throughout the film about just how awful Marjorie is and how saintly their beloved Bernie is to indulge the town grump. Bernie, of course, ends up managing Marjorie’s life, her money, and eventually, her estate. In effect, he becomes her servant.
When Marjorie’s imperious orneriness surpasses even Bernie’s limits, he puts four bullets in her back – with sincere Southern regret. Hiding her from the townspeople, Bernie indulges his passions for singing (in a lovely tenor), directing The Music Man, supporting worthy causes with Marjorie’s money, and basking in the community light as the philanthropist of Carthage. He is finally held to account by the ambitious prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson (a newly minted and improved Matthew McConaughey).
If nothing else has convinced you that the line between devious and virtuous can blur into a deep friendly fog, remember that this is a true story, initially written by Skip Hollandsworth for “Texas Monthly.” In a splendid wrap-up after confession and trial, director Richard Linklater returns to his chorus (a fine mix of actors and actual townspeople) who let us know without equivocation that whatever Bernie did, he is much too nice to be guilty of anything. And that is the impenetrable, marvelous, key to understanding a Southern Gothic story.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.