Bernie (2012): Richard Linklater’s Darkly Humorous Dramedy, Starring Jack Black in Great Performance

After a couple of unsuccessful films and various efforts to make it into the mainstream, Richard Linklater is back on terra firma with Bernie, a darkly humorous dramedy that’s also effective as a character study. And what a character he has chosen for the film’s protagonist: an assistant funeral director in small town Texas!

Those who claim that Jack Black cannot act much and/or that his range is very limited (“Kung Fu Panda,” anyone?) should have a closer look at “Bernie,” a film dominated by Black’s charming presence and both comedic and dramatic skills.

Joining forces, Linklater and Black bring out the best in each other. An iconic director, who made some of the most significant indies of the 1990s (“Slacker,” ”Dazed and Confused”), Linklater was always a regional filmmaker in the best sense of this term. He knows how to portray (without judgment or condemnation) the quirky nature of small-town (and Austin is a small town in many ways) personalities.
Black plays Bernhardt Tiede II, a soft-spoken guy who got the job of the assistant director of the Hawthorne Funeral Home in the little rural town of Carthage, Texas.

At first, no one knew what to make of the strange, chubby guy, who was generous to a fault. The town’s barber called him “peachy and sweet.” Other men swapping stories in many lazy afternoons at Leon Choate’s barber-and-gunsmith shop, with some speculating that he might be “a little light in the loafers.”

Soon, however, Bernie, became one of Carthage’s most popular residents. There was a consensus that his greatest quality was to produce beautiful funerals for the deceased, no matter who and what they were. According to the town’s folklore, “when Bernie was doing your service, you just knew you were going to get to heaven.”

One afternoon Bernie organized the funeral for Rod Nugent, a rich Carthage oilman and chair of Carthage’s bank. There, he met Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the town’s domineering dame, despised for her arrogance and rude behavior. Following his customs, Bernie regularly visited Mrs. Nugent after the funeral. Soon, she began asking him to run errands for her, to take her to lunch and dinner, and act as her escort on trips. Then, in August 1997, in a story that made headlines in newspapers, Mrs. Nugent was found dead, shot in the back, and buried under some frozen foods in the large, rectangular freezer in her garage.

The film’s third main character is played by Matthew McConaughey, as the town’s blustery real-life District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, who was determined to get to the bottom of the crime.

Asked what motivated him to do this picture, Linklater revealed: “It’s my Fargo in East Texas, where I grew up, and a story that captures all the hilarity, friendliness, eccentricity and absolute strangeness of small-town Texas life.”

What made the story of Mrs. Nugent’s murder so peculiar was that she had been dead for nine months before people noticed she wasn’t around. “No one really cared about looking for her because no one missed her,” one resident said.

What made the story truly bizarre, however, was the announcement by police that Bernie not only had murdered Mrs. Nugent but had been using her money to give to people in need throughout Carthage. He even donated $100,000 in Mrs. Nugent’s name to build a new Sunday school building at the Methodist church. Almost immediately after his arrest, Carthage citizens rallied around Bernie, going so far as to drive around the courthouse blowing their horns, and begging District Attorney Davidson not to prosecute their favorite assistant funeral home director.

“Bernie” contains characters that do things that are simply unpredictable, though much of the movie is a re-telling of what actually happened. To enhance authenticity, Linklater even hired numerous East Texas citizens–many Carthage residents who knew Bernie and Mrs. Nugent–to play minor roles or act as extras in the movie.