SXSW Review: BERNIE

By Laurie Coker   

Rating: A-

Every year that I attend SXSW, I find a few favorites. Bernie, a quirky little film by director Richard Linklater, starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey and Shirley McLaine, falls pretty close to the top of that list. Based on a magazine true crime article from a 1998 edition of Texas Monthly written by Skip Hollandsworth (who also penned the screenplay), Bernie, a dark comedy,  is set in the small east Texas town, where a well-liked mortician befriends an old (much older than he) wealthy widow and the results of that relationship, and I loved it. Adding to my pleasure was the opportunity to interview Linklater, McConaughey and Black after seeing the film.

Black plays Bernie and he is impressive to be sure. In Bernie, he sings gospel (which he did for us in the interview), give eulogies, comforts widows and widowers, sells caskets, directs and acts in community theatre and so much more. After her husband dies, Bernie (in spite of her surly dispositions) befriends bank owner Marjorie Nugent, but as the friendship turns from mutual and amicable – the pair travels the globe and Bernie caters to every one of Marjorie’s needs – to one that  more like master controller and slave, until Bernie one day snaps and murders his benefactor.

Linklater first saw the story when it ran in the periodical in ‘98 and he followed the trial of Bernie, who Black met and model his character after. He told me that playing a real person is more difficult that playing a made up one, but he likes Bernie and had a good deal of fun bringing the character to the big screen. Apparently, everyone in his small Texas town LOVES Bernie too – calling him the nicest guy in town, and he truly seemed to be, but even nice has it s limit. Put super agreeable with super ornery, and apparently the end result is murder, eventually, and the trip with Linklater and crew through this real-life crime tale is darkly humorous and good fun to watch.

I enjoyed McLaine in her role too and would love to have met her with the others, and Black did say that working with her was awe-inspiring. McConaughey, who plays flashy district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, gets plenty of opportunity to ham it up as the first and only DA to ever get a change a venue arguing that the defendant would get not get a fair trial because he was too well liked. Great stuff!  He seems to truly enjoy working with Linklater, who gave him his first role (in Dazed and Confused) and we got McConaughey to say the line – “I love high school girls. I get older and they stay the same age” Classic! But I digress.

I think Bernie rated PG-13 is a blast and a must see. A few folks opted to skip the screening, telling me that it sounded like an “old person’s movie,” and while I am older (not too much so), I disagree. I think it should have a far wider audience. It is a film for any fan of true crime, of dark comedy and of the film’s stars. I am placing an A- in my grade book. I was thoroughly entertained.

 

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