In Richard Linklater's fascinating new film "Bernie," the individual brushstrokes of town gossip coalesce to create vivid cinematic portraiture.
Or, to put it another way…
"If everyone in town thinks you're a bitch," Linklater said, "you probably are."
The word is used in "Bernie" to describe Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) an elderly, wealthy battleaxe in the small Texas town of Carthage who is murdered by Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a younger man who had become her gentleman companion.
"Bernie" is one of the strangest true crime dramas you'll ever see, and one of the most entertaining, not least for the docudrama contributions of the Carthaginians themselves — Linklater used many of the town's actual residents to make the kind of talking-head contributions so common to the genre.
The results are hilarious, and engrossing. The movie works as a character-driven procedural, but also as a richly appointed piece of Americana — a Hitchcock-meets-Rockwell portrait of small town life that is much thornier and darker than its polite surface initially suggests.
"As a director your first challenge is how to tell the story. With Bernie off in jail, and Miss Nugent not around, they become slightly enigmatic characters. So how do you get to the bottom of that complex situation? For me, the right place for the story to reside was in the town," said Linklater. "What do you have to go on except for what the people are saying, the people you meet? Who better to know the real truth of a place?"
The truth that makes "Bernie" such a humdinger is that while everyone in Carthage knew Bernie killed Miss Nugent, almost nobody wanted him sent to jail for it. Nobody but the community's exasperated prosecutor (Matthew McConaughey). He had to win a change of venue in order to find a jury that didn't know and love Bernie, and that might convict him.
Bernie embodied the flip side of Linklater's earlier axiom.
"If everybody in town thinks you're a really sweet guy, you probably are."
Bernie was a mortician by training who became a sort of funeral impresario, staging send-offs so heartfelt and tasteful that residents bargained in advance for a regal "Bernie" funeral. He was a church-going man, a sought after vocalist, a friend, confident, volunteer, local institution, director and star of amateur stage production (Black's turn here as "The Music Man" is worth the price of admission).
Bernie's ingratiating manner even softened the notoriously flinty heart of Miss Nugent, who made him her full time friend and live-in companion.
Black has been known to sing on screen ("School of Rock" "High Fidelity"), and his pipes made him the ideal choice to play the title character, introduced in a crucial scene that has him singing gospel songs in his car on the way to work.
"There's a certain authentic joy there. I wanted people to see pure Bernie, not performing for anybody. I think he had the spirit in him, in that regard."
And here is where the movie hints at something intriguingly dark. Bernie is sincere man, a good Christian. So are the good people of Carthage. There is nothing phony in their devotion, and yet, they seem blithely willing to disregard one of the Ten Commandments. A big one, the one about killing.
"The story's not interesting if Bernie's a charming serial killer, a psychopath. That's a fake charm, and that is 180 degrees away from Bernie. He had too much empathy for that."