Richard Linklater's "Bernie" is a disquieting black comedy about a real-life enigma. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) was by all accounts an upright citizen. An assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas, he sang in the choir and in local musical productions, taught Sunday school, and was kind to old ladies.
One of those old ladies, the wealthy heiress Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), known as Marge, had a reputation as a first-class sourpuss. She was so flummoxed by Bernie's attentions that she transformed him into her constant companion, business manager, and all-around helpmate.
In 1997, after Marge had not been seen in public for nine months, it was revealed that gentle-souled Bernie had shot Marge four times in the back in her home and kept her corpse in an ice chest in the garage.
Linklater, collaborating with coscreenwriter Skip Hollandsworth (who wrote a 1998 Texas Monthly piece about the murder), presents this story in all its glittering ambiguity. Was Bernie a crook out to score Marge's money? Was he was genuinely fond of her? Did he even know what his motives were in currying her favor?
Linklater lets the real-life Carthage citizens speak for themselves about the case. I like the fact that he doesn't poke fun at anybody in this film or make us feel superior to them. In a "Reds"-like structure, the townsfolk act as on-camera witnesses. It's an oddly disjointed tactic – real people are commenting on a real crime in the context of a fictional narrative – but it works because everything else about this story is equally strange.
Linklater appears to be siding with the notion that Bernie was not a con artist but rather a man without the slightest hint of self-knowledge. He repeatedly allows us into Bernie's confidences and private moments and not once do we sense anything two-faced or duplicitous about him. Even the murder has an aura of innocence about it – for a brief moment, before the fever passed, he simply could no longer abide Marge's harangues. (He claimed he froze her body to preserve it for a proper burial.)
If all Linklater was doing in this film was presenting us with yet another example of a seemingly good man with a dark side, it would have been unremarkable. His daring here is to give us a model citizen who, somehow, despite his momentary lunacy and all-encompassing cluelessness, remains upstanding – so much so that Carthage's high-powered district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), who castigates Bernie as a cowardly conniver and purported homosexual, has the murder trial moved out of town because so many of its inhabitants and potential jurors refuse to believe Bernie is a killer. The innocence of the townspeople is weirdly uplifting. They love their Bernie so much that they seem even more blinkered than he is.
Black has mugged his way through so many movies that seeing his subtle and genuinely touching work as the mincing, always-in-motion Bernie is something of a revelation. Black worked once before with Linklater in the wonderful "School of Rock." Clearly he needs a director who can rein his arching eyebrows in. McConaughey, who, like Linklater, hails from Texas (and whose mother is one of the "witnesses"), has a rip-roaring time, too. Even MacLaine, whose performances have become so mannered as to be unwatchable, is terrific here. We can glimpse the maidenliness behind the crabbiness.
"Bernie" at times seems a shade too mild, and Linklater's reliance on the townspeople is overdone. But this is a murder mystery in which the real mystery – the mystery of personality – goes unsolved. It's a gentle, light-fingered horror story, and it rightfully leaves us as bewildered as the denizens of Carthage. Grade: A- (Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief, strong language.)