Richard Linklater, like Stephen Soderbergh, is something of a divided director. His films can usually be blatantly distinguished as either art house or populist but Bernie, Bernie is something different, this one is an arthouse film about a crowd pleaser. The titular mortician (though that is no longer the preferred nomenclature), Bernie, is just about the most pleasant person that you could ever imagine meeting and not in a schmaltzy of sarcastic way. Even as someone who questions that overwhelming merit of those most mainstream moral virtues (like churchgoing, charity work, etc.) I found him to be utterly adorable. Bernie is laid back, generous and old fashioned, he is the epitome of the Texas ideal and so it comes as something of a shock when he commits a cold blooded murder midway through the movie, even though that is the advertised synopsis. Though the set-up – which was put in place by fate, this being a non-fiction tale and all – seems ideal for a meaningful mediation of the nature of life and death – it is after all about a man who works with dead people making himself a new client – the film actually has no interest in any of that stuff; instead it is more concerned with the everyday reality of this most unreal man’s life, specifically the relationship that he has with his town.
The people of Carthage meant everything to Bernie and he to them it seems, so Linklater smartly chose to allow these townspeople to tell the story through a documentary-esque series of talking heads. He hasn’t re-cast them with actors, nor does he utilise the in-favour technique of mockumentary in which he proposes that there is a team of reporters revisiting the crime or some such; instead he simply hands the actual people a microphone, listens to what they say and then shapes his story around their speeches, sometimes even including them within scenes alongside Black and Matthew. It’s a strange and utterly unique technique that both reduces the story to the realm of reality and provides it with a broader social context; making the movie as much about Texas as it is this one Texan.
This documentary approach, in addition to the films bizarre tone, gives Bernie a feeling reminiscent of Errol Morris’s movies, especially Tabloid; that laughable ludicrousness that has you guffawing at gruesome truths. The film opens with Bernie telling us that you can’t make a mockery of a morticians duty, but the montage of him at work that follows does just that in a way. It gets us to laugh at the absurdity but never the person in the middle of it. It is a mockery, but in the way that one mate mocks another, there is nothing malicious in it which is admirable given just how soft a target most of these characters are.
Unfortunately then it stands out when a character like Shirley McLaine’s is given such short shrift. Her Ms.Nugent is treated, if not maliciously then bluntly, she is a ham-handed villain in a film that otherwise favours verisimilitude. Were this the end of the example it wouldn’t be such a big deal, films treat their villains like this all the time, but there was a sense that we would see otherwise when she seemed to be opening up to Bernie a little – the melting of a cold-heart as much a cliche as Cruella DeVille yes, but a more enjoyable one – but then she snaps back on a sudden just before she is struck down. This may well be the truth, it may well be exactly what happened, but it also seems a shift symptomatic of the films sympathy for its central character. Linklater seems to have fallen just as deeply in love with the man as Carthage did and while this is certainly charming I feel that a more ambiguous moral tact would have made for a more meaningful and perhaps memorable movie.
That said though Black is as enjoyable here as he was in Rock, though the two roles are of course very different. The main commonality between the films is that they are perhaps the only two that make use of both his personal charm and his unique vocals, we buy him completely as this charming character who carries blue-hairs from the cemetery and croons at the church each Sunday and we love him for it, even though we know from the start just how damn strange he is. People aren’t this nice, there is no such thing as this much Southern Charm but as one of those townfolk says, people believe what they want to believe and what I believe is that Bernie is a brilliant study of simple, smiling character, something I havn’t seen since Happy-Go-Lucky.
Is it also a brilliant film? I don’t know, because to be honest I found myself entirely switched off during the screening. I wasn’t watching the direction, noting the edits or critiquing the cinematography I was just enjoying my time as a tourist in this little part of small-town Texas. Certainly it’s not the kind of movie that will change your life or linger in your mind for years, but Bernie, like Bernie, is charming and creepy an unlike anything else out there so you forgive it its flaws and have fun. I’d say that’s recommendation enough.