Murder Most Timid
Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunset), one of American film's best known independent directorial voices, spins a yarn of murder and wealth in a small town in Bernie, based on a real case. The title character, played in a delicate and strange performance by Jack Black, is a funeral director whose calm, antiquated, and sensitive way renders him an instant favorite among his burg's senior citizens, the older ladies in particular. He even charms a reclusive widow and notorious miser (a ferocious Shirley MacLaine). As he thaws her iced heart, she travels around the globe with him, treating him to top-of-the-line restaurants and exclusive cultural delights. But the bond soon turns toxic. She is jealous of his time and person, he grows reluctant. She rages, he fawns and is abused. Until a nearby rifle proves too tempting one fateful afternoon.
Rather than dramatize these grim, tragic events in a traditional and stone-faced true-crime style, the director/co-writer instead adopts a subtle comic voice and displays a greater interest in the East Texas town in which this crime transpired than the shooting itself or the psychological attributes of the perpetrator.
Those who have seen their fair share of Court TV or even the local news have heard a person say he or she just can't believe (not for one second, no, sir!) the courteous, quiet man next door could be a murderer. This film lives inside those words and finds considerable humor in them. By extension, it explores and lampoons the sweet, yet claustrophobic nature of rural Texas life. Interviews with Bernie's colleagues, friends, and neighbors, several of them played by actual citizens of Carthage, TX, are interspersed throughout the film and are a definite highlight, overflowing with colorful language and wild hypocrisies. They refuse to believe sweet, fey Bernie could have murdered her. And even if he did, it is her own damn fault because she was such a roaring bitch! The prosecutor (Matthew McConaughey, oily and charismatic) argues to have the trial moved because he fears Bernie is too popular to be convicted in a local court.
This fascination with environment and local color sets the film apart, but it is also limiting. Between the interview segments and general sense of ironic detachment, it almost plays as an extended Daily Show segment (or a minor Christopher Guest effort). Bernie is pleasant and at times hilarious, and performed with conviction by the stars, but one senses a deeper, even more fascinating film based on this crime could be produced.