Richard Linklater, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey on Bernie
Bernie celebrates Texas eccentricity in a true-crime comedy.
Attempting to capture a child’s upbringing on film, Richard Linklater has reportedly been shooting one movie, Boyhood, continuously since 2002. But perhaps no passion project has taken him longer to bring to the screen than Bernie, a dark comedy inspired by a late-’90s case in Carthage, Texas. (Spoilers ahead.) The perpetrator was Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a funeral director arrested for murdering Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a wealthy widow with whom he lived in a Sunset Blvd.–like codependency. After her body was discovered in a freezer, and Bernie readily admitted to what he’d done, there was only one problem: Carthage residents liked Bernie too much to want him convicted.
For Linklater, who attended the original trial, the story represented an opportunity to make his own Fargo—a sardonic but affectionate ode to his home state. “It’s fascinating, too, a place that’s technically a conservative place,” Linklater says in a hotel conference room in Austin, where he resides, during South by Southwest. “You realize there’s another element to all of our lives. That’s just what we believe—who we like and who we don’t like. You just give your friends a break. I like the ambiguities of it.”
More than simply telling a true-crime story, Bernie celebrates a particular strain of Texas eccentricity. The emphasis on place, whether it’s messy barbecue lunches or an aside in which a Carthage resident explains why Texas ought to be five separate states, helps set the movie’s peculiar, jaunty tone. Sitting together at a conference table, Linklater and fellow Texan Matthew McConaughey, who plays prosecutor Danny “Buck” Davidson, parse the morals of the case.
“I’ve played four lawyer roles, and each one of them I’ve sort of agreed with the other side of what I was playing,” McConaughey notes.
“You’re saying Sam Jackson should have done some time [in A Time to Kill]?” Linklater asks.
“Yeah. And I believed that all the way through the making of it.”
Black, in a separate conference room, says he met with Tiede only once, visiting him in a maximum-security prison. “The guards don’t care about Hollywood or who you are,” Black says. “They’re just running it like a military complex.” What struck him was that Tiede was on a crusade to get nutritious meals for the inmates. (The state had a deal with junk-food companies, Black says.)
You wonder if Bernie was really as outgoing and likable as the movie depicts. Did he really, upon shooting Marjorie, drop to his knees and beg for forgiveness? “We didn’t get into the grisly details of the actual moment of the murder,” Black says. “We just went with what felt right in the telling of the tale. That’s the fine line that you have to walk when you’re making a movie. You want to be as accurate as possible, and you also want to be entertaining.”
Bernie does court some ambiguities, suggesting, for instance, that Tiede might well have been using Marjorie for her money. (“That might have been a failure on my part,” Black says. “I wasn’t trying to communicate that.”) Even from a narrational perspective, the film is a hybrid, relaying the story through talking heads—some of them actual Carthage residents, others actors playing residents, with no clear distinctions made onscreen.
Linklater shrugs, explaining that with each part, he was simply looking for the most cine-genic presence. It’s just “what works for the movie,” he says. “It’s not a documentary.”
Bernie opens Friday 18.