BERNIE: A Film by Richard Linklater26 April 2012
ith his second film, SLACKER, Richard Linklater named – or, inadvertently, stereotyped – the generation that came of age in the early ’90s. His film had a cultural impact far beyond the relatively small number of people who saw it. How does one follow that up? Linklater has shown few signs of self-consciousness on that matter. He’s made better films – A SCANNER DARKLY, BEFORE SUNSET – and much more popular ones, like the studio-distributed comedy SCHOOL OF ROCK, but he’s only repeated himself once, in creating a sequel to his Paris-set BEFORE SUNRISE. Despite his success, much of his work has remained tied to his base of Austin, Texas. His latest film, BERNIE, explores the eccentricities of his home state.
BERNIE, set in Carthage, Texas, is based on a magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the script with Linklater. Bernie (Jack Black) is a funeral director. In the film’s opening scene, he gives a demonstration of the mortician’s art. A devout Christian, he loves singing hymns. Extremely well-liked, he’s fond of elderly ladies. Apparently gay, he seems to have no sex life. However, he develops a platonic relationship with Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), an extremely wealthy woman known for her mean streak. The odd couple spend her money in style, traveling around the world. However, Bernie makes one major misstep, which lands him in deep trouble with the law, as embodied by D.A. Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey).
BERNIE is no mockumentary. However, its plot is told largely in quasi-documentary style, through interviews with Carthage townspeople. While this device is familiar from sitcoms like THE OFFICE, it also replicates the experiences Hollandsworth must have gone through gathering material for his article. BERNIE puts the audience in the investigator’s shoes, but simultaneously, it allows us to be charmed by its anti-hero.
Indie films set in rural America often err on the side of condescension. Linklater balances affection and a critical edge. One doesn’t come away thinking he’d want to live in Carthage, but he seems to like its residents. Their banter rings true. They’re apparently played by professional actors, but one wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Linklater pulled them off the streets of Carthage.
As embodied by Jack Black, Bernie is extremely likable. His nemesis Danny Buck, while ultimately on the side of right, is far less appealing. If it’s about anything beyond a laid-back trip to small-town Texas, BERNIE is an exploration of guilt. Marjorie’s money does a lot of good for the town of Carthage. Do the foul circumstances under which it was obtained negate that? In the eyes of the law, they do, but to the people of Carthage, Bernie remains a virtual hero. To Danny Buck, his mistake is so serious that it undoes the rest of Bernie’s life. The film suggests that ethics aren’t so black and white. Linklater seems to have fallen under Bernie’s spell as well. In any case, it’s easy to succumb to the charms of this film, which is so breezy one might not notice that it expresses any philosophy.
Writing Credits: Steve Erickson is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites across America, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.
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