If you grew up in a Southern, church-going small town like I did, then you knew Bernie. He sang during Sunday service or he led the choir or he played the piano, often all three. He was sensitive and soft-spoken. He was helpful and kind. The old ladies loved him. He was “sweet,” which is a Southern Evangelical code word for “gay.” The Bernie you knew was most likely so identifiably gay – and also most likely terrified into a neutered state -- that nobody knew what to think about it, especially him.
The Bernie of this particular film is a real man, last name Tiede, and he's currently living in a Texas prison. You can see him talking to his on-screen counterpart, Jack Black, if you sit through the closing credits. In the mid '90s, in what can only be described as a psychic break with rational behavior, Bernie Tiede shot and killed his platonic, longtime companion, an elderly widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine). Then he put her into a deep freezer. Her sudden disappearance from the small, east Texas town of Carthage went mostly unnoticed and thoroughly unmissed, since nearly everyone in town disliked the mean-spirited woman. Meanwhile, district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) kept working against the tide of Bernie-love to get a fair trial (after Tiede's confession, locals announced forthrightly that they would vote for acquittal if they served on the jury) even if it meant moving it out of town.
If you're keeping score that's at least two actors who inspire red flag warnings in a lot of moviegoers. Both Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey are the kinds of guys whose annoying external tics can overwhelm a film. When Black reins himself in, even a little, everything's cool -- Kung Fu Panda, High Fidelity, Nacho Libre or Margot at the Wedding -- and when he doesn't he's a manic, wide-eyed, post-Jim Carrey bulldozer, leveling everything around him until you forget what you're watching, only that you want out as quickly as possible. Gulliver's Travels. You don't want to be anywhere near Gulliver's Travels. And McConaughey, thanks to The Lincoln Lawyer, is only now figuring out how undo the toxic levels of smarm he built up over a series of rotten Kate Hudson/Jennifer Garner/Sarah Jessica Parker rom-coms. But here both men, working with director Richard Linklater, have accomplished something great. McConaughey comfortably lives in his own Texas skin without feeling the need to turn Danny Buck into a caricature and Black goes chameleon, transforming himself into Bernie rather than adapting the character to fit his own tendency for self-indulgent wackiness.
Best of all, Linklater knows Texas and he never condescends. He gets its rhythms and its pace. Any limitations he displays as a filmmaker are more than balanced by the intuitive understanding he has of his home state's regional differences, oddball idiosyncrasies and contradictions, not the least of which is how a tiny, politically conservative, deeply religious town could be that much in love with its gayest citizen, even turning a blind eye to his act of murder. So when the title card comes up, announcing "The story you're fixin' to see is true," it's more accurate than cloying. And his decision to tell the story via a huge chorus of Carthage town gossips is perfect in concept and execution, the group so uniformly "real" that it's hard to know who's an actor (be on the lookout for McConaughey's real-life mother) and who was just sitting at the local diner when the production crew showed up.
Blackly funny, strangely moving and deeply weird, it's as comforting and as sinister as a heart-attack-plate of chicken fried steak with biscuits and gravy. And I'm fixin' to see it again.