Jack Black has a history for doing roles that only require he speak louder to be effective, but here he completely disappears as Bernie Tiede. How he came to be at Carthage is rarely mentioned, but upon his arrival he was adopted as one of their own.
From the onset of Bernie, we are introduced to a man seemingly without flaws. He practices his craft without peer, he volunteers with the local arts, he sings for the church, and there is hardly a favor he wouldn't do. He is possibly the most loved man in Carthage, Texas.
Marjorie Nugent (welcome back Shirley MacLaine) is recently widowed and lies on the opposite side of the popularity spectrum. Not a single citizen can be bothered to say a nice thing about her. So it strikes the locals as odd when Bernie takes such a personal interest in the widow. Her money was of use to him, but he certainly didn't live high on the hog. There was no romantic notions held in the opinion of others—the most affectionate moment between the two involves holding hands. Whatever Bernie's reasoning is for befriending Marjorie, it takes.
Things start off well enough for Bernie, the woman hated all across Carthage was now out-and-about abandoning her misanthropic ways, and it was all due to him. It is almost enough to make you forget that we are told almost immediately that he is also the man who murdered her.
Most are skeptical that Bernie could commit such a crime, but two of his detractors are thoroughly convinced. One of which is District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey). Buck, depending on how you look at him, serves as the goofus or gallant of Bernie. The D.A. is not looked upon kindly, but whether it be out of self-promotion, or a sense of duty, he is committed to sending Bernie to prison.
Bernie tries desperately to cling to a slicked rope as a man who was once beloved, now faces a lifetime in prison.
As we watch how everything sorts out, one of Bernie's shining highlights is the city of Carthage itself. Richard Linklater should be lauded for using footage with the real residents of the town. Too often films based on true stories look at locals with distaste, however, these onlookers provide an unique flavoring to the story.
Credit Linklater and script collaborator Skip Hollandsworth (who wrote the article the film is based on) for making a mockumentary without the bitter self-awareness of most post-modern films. While the line between comedy and drama blends into greys, most of the film's laughs are derived from incredulity, not vitriol.
Who says true stories are boring?