The narrator of Bernie (2011; dir. Richard Linklater) tells us that Carthage in East Texas is where the American South begins. This film is difficult to categorize. It’s a faux documentary of sorts, based on true events. The four or five principal characters in the film are played by Hollywood actors, but they are based on real citizens from Carthage, and throughout the film features interviews with individuals connected with events--they are all citizens of Carthage. Their names and faces appear at the end of the film and roll past in the credits.
One can think of Errol Morris in this film, or even of the satiric documentaries made by the people who made Spinal Tap and A Mighty Wind. Bernie is definitely a comedy, albeit a dark one, and a satire. The satire aims at the community values of a small town that values friendliness and community involvement over the fact that its main character, Bernie, killed a woman.
Bernie himself appears in Carthage from a seemingly obscure background, hires on as assistant undertaker at a local funeral home, and goes about endearing himself to the members of the community—he is solicitous when they are bereaved, takes part in community activities, he has a beautiful singing voice, and his personality is winning. He is somewhat effeminate, and in fact many of the townspeople suspect he is gay, but surprisingly they don’t seem to resent him for it. Jack Black is excellent as Bernie, a much different fellow from Black’s usual roles.
Bernie seems more comfortable with older women than women his own age, and one person he begins squiring around town is Marjorie Nugent, played in a droll if obvious manner by Shirley MacLaine. She’s the most unpopular woman in town. Avaricious and selfish, permanently estranged from other members of her family, crabby in the extreme. Bernie gradually insinuates himself into her friendship, and before long they are living under the same roof. He becomes her personal assistant, manages all her affairs, and accompanies her wherever she wants to go.
It’s clear that Bernie likes Marjorie’s money. He has expensive tastes. He wants to make gifts to various individuals and causes in the town, and her money makes that possible. But gradually she turns abusive, treats him more as a slave than a friend, and one day he shoots her four times in the back and stows her body in a freezer in the garage. He goes on living in her house, managing her affairs, spending her money, as if she is still alive. He tells people who ask that she is recovering from a stroke. Finally, her stock broker, who has been suspicious of him all along, manages to uncover the truth.
The townspeople give Bernie credit for not dismembering and disposing of Marjorie’s body. He keeps it intact, so that she can be buried in the proper way when the time comes. They think this shows that he really did care for her and wanted her to have a proper funeral. The local district attorney (overplayed by Matthew McConaughey) moves the trial to another town because of Bernie’s popularity in Carthage. Although the facts of the case are clear and Bernie has confessed to the murder, the townspeople support him throughout the trial and are outraged when he is found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Among the many ironies and paradoxes in this film, the tolerance and fondness of the citizens of Carthage for Bernie stand out. He is popular and well liked, and Marjorie was an old crone, and that seems to make the difference.
The film implies but never deeply investigates the likelihood that Bernie is attracted not to Mrs. Nugent but to her money, that he’s a poser, a kind of flimflam man who insinuates his way into the heart of the community by pretending to be what he’s not, by spending someone else’s money, by creating a personality for himself that allows him to become the town hero, a modern-day George Bailey. We can reach that conclusion on our own, or, on the other hand, maybe Bernie wins us over too.