Based on a true story, Richard Linklater’s wonderfully offbeat 2011 comedy Bernie offers a comfortable, engaging window into the almost Twin Peaks-style small American town of Carthage. Located ‘behind the pine curtain’ in east Texas, Carthage is populated by a host of garrulous souls who provide the narration of Bernie, often playing themselves in moments of dramatic reconstruction in this crowd-pleasing docudrama. Jack Black stars as the eponymous Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director who takes great pride in the morbid work of beautifying the recently deceased for their final public engagement.
After moving to Carthage, the kindly Bernie soon becomes a popular figure in the town thanks to his helpful nature and vibrant community spirit. Most notably, Bernie seems to have a real knack for befriending older widows whose husbands’ funerals he has overseen, leading him to become the only ally and confidant of Majorie Nugent (played with trembling rage by The Apartment star Shirley MacLaine). The odd couple start taking trips together all over the world, whilst Majorie also bankrolls his community efforts. In contrast to her pal Bernie, Mrs. Nugent is widely disliked in the town, leading to an understandable division of loyalties when Bernie murders his benefactor in a fit of melancholic unhappiness.
This division is not amongst the populace, but between the people and the law, represented by swaggering district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey). McConaughey continues to mine his recent vein of good work as the clean-cut, attention-seeking Buck, a man whose commitment to getting Bernie convicted puts him at odds with the people upon whom he relies for re-election. Really, the film is jointly owned by Black – whose winning performance may be the best of his career – and the people of Carthage. The townsfolk’s steadfast support of Bernie is both shocking and heartwarming, and the way they vocalise that support is witty and touching in equal measure.
Linklater has been consistently excellent over the course of his eclectic career, with mainstream successes like School of Rock (2003) nestled in among esoteric experiments like Waking Life (2001) and his masterly Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006). Bernie may be something of a minor piece in a filmography as rich as Linklater’s – even overlooked this year in favour of the immensely popular indie romance Before Midnight (2013) – but it undoubtedly deserves to be seen and adored as widely as possible.