I doubt the churchgoing residents of Carthage, Texas will ever have a better story to tell than the one concerning Bernie Steid. Ripe for endless gossip, it rang through their sanctified choir and undermined much of what they believe in. The truth behind the strange case of their murderous mortician doesn’t even need to be revealed: it can stand on its own as Southern Gothic oral history. It is myth incarnate.
Richard Linklater’s well-wrapped biopic revels in the hypocrisies of confidence and reputation. Pudgy, garrulous Bernie Steid (Jack Black) is known to everyone in Carthage as a largehearted neighbor and a welcome house guest. As the town’s assistant funeral director, he gives thoughtful eulogies and visits the homes of the bereaved, carrying gifts and flowers wherever he goes. He is a devoted member of the church and directs community theater productions in his spare time. So, folks are curious but not surprised when he befriends Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy and ancient widow reviled by everyone for her cruelty and miserliness. Bernie only begins to raise eyebrows when he becomes her personal assistant and starts accompanying her on first-class vacations around the world. The perks are great, until the relationship turns into a stifling nightmare. Once inseparable by choice, Marjorie starts calling him at all hours of the day with outrageous demands. Unable to the cope with her overbearing pressure, Bernie chooses an easy yet violent way out: he plugs her four times in the back and tries to make her disappear.
As with any eponymous work, Bernie hinges upon its namesake, and this kook definitely deserves documentation and analysis. Boasting an outsized personality riddled with contradictions, he could serve as a model for a creative writing class or subject of a case study. In Bernie, we see the immaculate veneer of gentility and quirkiness as much as sublimated bitterness and rage. The repressed emotions are ever-present, and even if we didn’t know the outcome, we could conceivably predict the story’s eventual malice. Linklater and Black both have a hand in this foreshadowing. The pacing, for one, is exceptional: a slow-building creepiness with choice real-life sound bites from those who knew him. The star, too, is in great Method form. Black’s commitment to Bernie is absolute, and by shedding his wackier side, we get an actor who can be taken seriously while still letting the humor bleed through. As the credits roll, we see Black at a table with the real Bernie Steid. He looks attentive and calm — quite different than the clownish man-child we’re used to — and it’s a rewarding glimpse into his process.
Although ostensibly the story of a fall from grace, Bernie is shaped by the conditions and mores of a town that’s proudly Texan and driven by the words of its preacher. The primped old ladies of Carthage fawn over Bernie, while the men accept him as he is, reserving their judgment because of his many acts of benevolence. They’re so entrenched in scripture that they only perceive his kindness and dedication: even after he confesses to shooting his frail employer, the people of Carthage ask the district attorney (played serviceably by Matthew McConaughey) not to press charges. Bernie was a saint, and their God is a forgiving one.
In a recent article in New York Times Magazine, Marjorie Nugent’s nephew said Linklater stuck with the facts of the affair, barring a few cinematic tweaks. While accuracy is paramount here, sometimes the film feels too much like a reenactment in a true-crime series (which could be related to its hazy amber and sepia tones). But I don’t want to split hairs. Bernieis a smart comedy dosed with understated satire, a pleasant stopover while we wait for Linklater’s next step.