In the small town of Carthage, Texas, the most popular guy in town is the man who puts you to rest. Mortician’s assistant Bernie Tiede (Jack Black: Kung Fu Panda 2) sings in the church choir, gives care packages to new widows and delivers inspirational speeches to Little League teams. So it’s understandable that the town forgives Bernie his one, itty-bitty transgression: shooting a rich widow in the back and keeping her body in a freezer for nine months.
You see, it wasn’t his fault. Everyone in Carthage knew Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine: Valentine’s Day) was a mean old biddy, so clearly she had it coming.
The only man in Carthage who wants to see Bernie tried for his crime is prosecutor and media hound Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey: The Lincoln Lawyer). But the town’s resistance is so great he must apply for a change of venue to avoid an immediate acquittal.
Bernie is a brilliant Southern Gothic comedy that’s too outrageous to be fictitious. Directed by Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles), the movie is based on the true story of the nicest murder in the history of Texas.
Linklater interviews real Carthage townspeople for their feelings on the awful Marjorie and saintly Bernie. The Carthaginians might not have the full story, but do they ever have some great gossip.
Marjorie bought some see-thru lingerie from one of them dirty stores down in Shreveport; you know what that means … Bernie mighta been a little light in the loafers, bein’ he only hung around widows and no women his own age … Those St. Augustine jurors weren’t fit to judge Bernie; half those no account rednecks shouldn’t be allowed out of the county.
Fruit from the small town grapevine, delivered by the very gossips who spread it, transforms Bernie from macabre comedy to witty commentary on small-town life. Church-going folk with high moral standards can forgive one little murder — as long as the victim is a nasty old lady who forgot the first rule of living in a small town: Be nice.
The most brilliant part of Linklater’s film is that you understand, almost, how the Carthaginians came to their conclusion. Black gives an excellent performance as a complex man who seems genuinely sweet, even when he picks up that armadillo rifle. MacLaine, for her part, is an easy target. She screeches and nags, shriveling up her mouth into a tight mew of anger with every line. Even her chewing is a deliberate act of hostility.
The real marvel of Bernie, however, might be how Linklater was able to coach a hilarious performance out of noted bongo enthusiast McConaughey. As Buck, he stands as the one voice of reason in a town consumed with defending a guilty man.
Bernie, a fantastic look on small town politics and the value of popularity, makes a compelling argument for being nice to your neighbors.