In one of those true stories so crazy you could not make it up — eye-catchingly chronicled in a Texas Monthly magazine article called Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas, by Skip Hollandsworth — Richard Linklater strikes gold, turning it into a droll, dark comedy of manners, and a showcase for the unobvious, quite inspired casting of Jack Black as the eponymous undertaker and “real nice” man whose generous personality might see him forgiven for just about anything.
Bernie Tiede breezes into Carthage with his embalmer’s make-up kit and a sunny Christian song on his lips. A dab hand with the dead and a gentle people person with the bereaved, he is a popular addition to the staff of a funeral home in a town where he is here, there and everywhere spreading cheer and baked goodies, singing in the church choir and leading the local AmDram group. The suspicion that Bernie is a little light in the loafers is shrugged off by townsfolk because he’s such a kind, neat, sweet and discreet guy. More intriguing to observers — and Linklater trots out a procession of documentary-style interviewees with names like Scrappy, Huckabee and Hornbuckle to bear witness with liberal use of hilariously unique Texan colloquialisms — is Bernie’s intimate relationship with sour, domineering heiress Marjorie Nugent, whose pleasure in making other people miserable is evident in Shirley MacLaine’s mighty repertoire of tiny and malignant smirks.
It’s not a spoiler to reveal that even Bernie’s geniality is so tested by Marjorie that one day he ups and shoots her four times in the back. It’s in Bernie’s tap-dancing manoeuvres to conceal his crime that the film really takes flight. Embezzling Marjorie’s funds to endow college scholarships and bestow charity on the needy is just part of his hectic social and secret lives. Like most of Carthage, apparently, one wishes Matthew McConaughey’s colourful prosecutor would back off, only guiltily recollecting that murder most foul has been done and wondering whither the course of justice will take Bernie and us.