10 Years Later: Revisiting Linklater’s Bernie
Richard Linklater’s Bernie is a film that could have gone wrong so easily, had it not mastered the tone of a tricky story and even trickier protagonist- but master it he did.
The film, which was released ten years ago this week, was based on a wild true crime story that represented an addition to Linklater’s canon of Texas-based stories. Aside from the Texas setting, and the presence of certain familiar actors, Bernie doesn’t have a great deal in common with most of the director’s filmography.
Bernie was based on a magazine article called “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly, with Hollandsworth and Linklater co-writing it. The title is clearly a riff on John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, which didn’t result in nearly as good as a movie adaptation as Bernie.
The film is the true story of Bernie Tiede, a character who very much contains multitudes- and possibly the most positively-portrayed murderer in the history of movies.
Played by Jack Black in an against-type turn for his School of Rock director, Bernie was a churchgoing, singing mortician, presumed to be gay by everyone in his town. Seemingly altruistic, and constantly seen in the company of elderly widows, Bernie was a beloved figure in the small town of Carthage, Tex.- and even if this red state small town, nobody appeared to mind that he was gay. Whether Bernie got into the habit of befriending widows out of a desire to con them out of money is a question the film leaves ambiguous.
The film explores Bernie’s friendship with an older widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), which ended when he abruptly murdered her and disposed of the body using his mortician skills. The twist? Because Bernie was so nice, and Marjorie so mean and cruel, everyone in town took Bernie’s side- either proclaiming his innocence or declaring the homicide justified.
In fact, as explained by the town’s prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson, (Matthew McConaughey, then in the early stages of his McConaissance period), the prosecution had to ask for a change of venue because the murder defendant was just too popular in Carthage for there to be a fair trial. In another town, Bernie was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder.
Is this a sign of misogyny, all but celebrating a woman’s murder while celebrating her male murderer? On the part of the people in Carthage, sure, although I don’t know that that charge extends to the film itself.
Black’s performance is fantastic, one of the best, playing this soft-spoken gay man with complete believability. But the best thing about Bernie is the world-building of the town, thanks to the use of talking-head interviews. Some are actors while others are actual people, but they tell the story in a funny and colorful way. The film wouldn’t have worked without them.
The film was loved by critics, although it performed tepidly at the box office, earning only $10 million when it was released in the spring of 2012 (it had had a festival debut the previous year, which is why it’s often listed as a 2011 release.)
Bernie was the end of a four-year hiatus for Linklater, although he returned the following year with one of his most acclaimed films, Before Midnight, and came out with Boyhood the year after that, and Everybody Wants Some! in 2016. He also directed one of the best movies of this year, Apollo 10 1/2, featuring a voice role by Jack Black.
Bernie, an underrated entry in Linklater’s filmography, is streaming in several places, including on Peacock, YouTube, Tubi, Crackle, and Pluto TV.Watch Bernie