During the mid-nineties, in the East Texan town of Carthage which boasted a population of seven thousand and was a quiet, genteel place for the most part, one of the most respected citizens was Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the local assistant mortician. Or funeral director, as he preferred to be called, a position he took very seriously, so much so that he practically took over the running of the local funeral home to better offer a dignified send off to his clients, many of whom requested that he sing at their final ceremony. He was something of a smalltown renaissance man, taking part in many activities including charities and the amateur dramatic society, with a special care for the little old ladies of the area...
But little old ladies would become his downfall, or one of them would at any rate. Was Bernie just too nice, and when faced with someone who barely stopped short of slapping him in the face in return for his love did he snap in a moment of madness, or was he in fact a calculating villain who hid his conniving nature under a sheen of decency and Godfearing demeanour? Or was he somewhere in between? This was almost a documentary, director Richard Linklater's entry in the twenty-first century's obsession with trying to divine the truth of various incidents and personalities by recreating them in fictionalisations where he implemented a technique where since there wasn't much footage of the events, he dramatised the lot.
But he also dropped in regular clips of the townsfolk giving their opinions on what happened, along with actors speaking lines as they played other townsfolk who would have speaking parts in the dramatisations, though to further blur the borders between fact and fiction sometimes the real people would show up in those as well. The effect could have been strange, but as it played you went with it because Linklater's hand on the helm was confident enough to dispel many reservations, though not enough to observe, consciously or otherwise, that there was something seriously off kilter about what was unfolding, and that was even before we arrived at the crime which had everyone in the film talking. In that case, Black's skilfull performance went a long way to sustaining that.
In a very contemporary manner, as when someone can be judged too good to be true if they come across as too nice, that paranoia which had become a defining mood of the cinema of the era was creeping into the movie from the very first scene and proved hard to shift. Bernie was that someone, a man who never had a bad word to say about anyone, and to an extent Black and Linklater were sympathetic towards him, pointing out that while the crime had been his fault, he was also in over his head and that deliberate attention he paid to the old ladies he preferred the company of in a manner it's implied was to divert attention from his homosexuality, had sown the seeds of his own downfall. That downfall was one little old lady too far, a millionairess widow named Marjorie Nugent who ran the bank with an iron fist and nobody actually liked thanks to her cold, brusque personality.
Marjorie was played by Shirley MacLaine, appropriately as a definite hint of Alfred Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry was here, a film she had made her debut in over half a century before, which also sought to see the funny side of a macabre plot, only this one was pretty much true. MacLaine didn't do much before she exited the picture, but she made it count as Marjorie grows more possessive over Bernie, just as he had been possibly taking advantage of his position as her sole friend by taking her on expensive holidays with her own money. She was, however, growing senile and started jealously guarding him to the exclusion of all others, and it is this increasing lack of reason that made Bernie snap. Enter the other main character, oddly the bad guy in that lawyer Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) wanted to send Bernie down for life when all the townsfolk wanted him to be set free as they liked him so much. There's nowt queer as folk, and we see the well-meaning have their good intentions twisted, quite possibly unjustifiably in a comedy too unsettling to be funny. Music by Graham Reynolds.
Skilled indie director, specialising in dialogue-driven comedy-drama. Linklater's 1989 debut Slacker was an unusual but well-realised portrait of disaffected 20-something life in his home town of Austin, Texas, while many consider Dazed and Confused, his warm but unsentimental snapshot of mid-70s youth culture, to be one of the best teen movies ever made. Linklater's first stab at the mainstream - comedy western The Newton Boys - was a disappointment, but Before Sunrise, SubUrbia, Tape and the animated Waking Life are all intelligent, intriguing pictures.