“We’re all capable of that dark moment, if we ever get angry enough.” This unpleasant truth is spoken not by a hard-boiled criminal but by a sweet, soft-spoken woman of a certain age, a resident of Carthage, Texas, where Richard Linklater’s Bernie is set. It’s an affectionate yet deceptively cynical vision of small-town America, based on an actual murder case in which mild-mannered funeral director Bernie Tiede (played by Jack Black) impulsively shot his elderly companion Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) to death in her home, then hid the body for months in a freezer. The news comes as a shock to the residents of Carthage—a town populated almost entirely by old people, as it’s represented here—in whose eyes Bernie was a beloved, if somewhat eccentric, member of the community. Meanwhile, the district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) conspires to move Bernie’s trial to a neighboring town in an attempt to ensure his conviction, his fear being that Bernie is so well-liked by his fellow Carthaginians that it would be impossible to find anyone impartial enough to serve on the jury.
The case has a bit of a tabloid flavor to it, but as he’s represented by Linklater, Black, and Linklater’s co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie is more than just a Southern-fried Ed Gein. The film is not a salacious exposé of the gruesome underbelly that lies seething beneath the cheery façade of small-town life. It’s something less nasty, but perhaps more troubling, than that: a portrait of a well-intentioned do-gooder who, having suffered years of repressed anger (as well as a sex life that appears to have been wholly sublimated into community service), finally cracks, and commits a random act of violence for which he can’t account. Bernie is something scarier than a monster; he’s an ordinary person whose very niceness and penchant for self-sacrifice ultimately drive him to murder.