Richard Linklater has always been known for his wry sense of humor when it comes to the finished product of his scripts, but not until Bernie, based on the true events of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), has he so eloquently been able to infuse one of his films with such a heightened sense of the macabre. It also gave him the chance to explore another of his favorite genres, non-fiction (as evidenced by his much less successfully adapted version of Fast Food Nation). Because, as we all know, the truth is always stranger than fiction.
Linklater, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, re-created the story from Hollandsworth's 1996 article in Texas Monthly about a local Assistant Funeral Director in Carthage, Texas, Bernie Tiede, who had been possessed to shoot the town's only millionaire, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), after enduring her incessant belittlement and controlling nature for months on end. The two did not become acquainted until Bernie officiated her husband's funeral and subsequently began visiting her home to check up on her--in spite of her icy demeanor toward him in the beginning.
Over time, however, Marjorie's heart warmed to the sweet and unassuming nature of Bernie and she let him into her insulated world--neuroses and finances included. Together, they would take lavish trips and cruises to exotic locales, causing many members of the Carthage population to speculate on what the parameters of their relationship were, especially since a large majority believed that Bernie was probably gay (Tiede was tied to homosexual relations with a number of married men in real life), or what one mockumentary interviewee dubbed "light in the loafers."
On the subject of the mockumentary style, there are often times when Bernie seems to combine elements of Drowning Mona and Drop Dead Gorgeous in terms of its delightfully dark and unapologetically sinister humor. While this breed of comedy has received mixed reactions from the people in Carthage who watched the events unfold as they occurred, there can be no denying that Linklater has a talent for turning two otherwise unsympathetic characters into individuals with equal merit in this tale of unexpected murder.
As Bernie surrenders more and more of his everyday routine to the demands of Marjorie, he comes to resent her at a level that he tries to suppress, ultimately resulting in his impromptu decision to shoot her four times in the back just to gain a few moments of solace without her condemnation. As Bernie quickly realizes, however, those few moments are Marjorie's eternity. Uncertain of what to do, Bernie opts to put her body in the freezer in the garage and act as though she has fallen ill when anyone questions him about her whereabouts. Granted, the only person who seems interested in where she is happens to be her stockbroker. Once the interest of Marjorie's estranged family is piqued, it is the beginning of the end for Bernie, who must face the wrath of District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson's (Matthew McConaughey) investigation.
The third act of the film focuses on Bernie's trial and conviction in a similar mockumentary style, but lacks the same brand of comedic genius without the continuous intercutting of faux interviews with townspeople (which counts for about 85% of Bernie's enjoyability) . Linklater himself commented on the strengths and weaknesses of the script by noting, "The gossip element almost kept the film from being made, because it reads boring... But they’ll be funny characters. I could just imagine the accents.” Indeed, very few filmmakers except for Linklater would have the bravery to make this film. And so Behind the Hype thanks you for your cojones, Mr. Linklater.