Director/co-writer Richard Linklater returns to his home Texas turf for this true-life crime story, reuniting with his School of Rock star Black for a mordant comedy that uses a Greek chorus of local townspeople to narrate the odd coupling of a bible-toting, effete mortuary worker and a rich, miserable widow.
Linklater, whose early ‘90s indie debut Slacker and its follow-up, the stoner classic Dazed and Confused, both took place in Austin and established him as a talent to watch, hits his stride here with a tale based on collaborator Skip Hollandsworth’s 1998 Texas Monthly piece, “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.”
The movie traces the real-life murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent by her unlikely companion, mild-mannered 39-year-old Bernie Tiede, a beloved member of the tiny, east Texas town of Carthage, whose residents flocked to his support during a sensational trial that resulted in his conviction. Linklater deftly navigates the telling—reminiscent of cult classic Harold & Maude—hovering somewhere between satire and tragedy.
The pleasantly plump Black captures the title character’s effete, straight-backed goodness, with only a hint of the deadly frustration which bubbles underneath, whether singing along to gospel music on the radio or directing and starring in a local production of The Music Man while attending to the needs of the bereaved with an earnestness that gradually endears him to a town not used to seeing grown men in sandals.
Shirley MacLaine is suitably arrogant as the archetypal village Grinch, only to visibly soften under the attention of Black’s solicitous behavior, then hardens in his garage icebox after he finally cracks and shoots her. Good old boy Matthew McConaughey, whose breakthrough role was in Dazed and Confused, returns the favor for the director here as ambitious, press-hungry, cowboy-hat-wearing district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the man who zealously pursues justice for Bernie. He grabbed Indie Spirit nominations for both Best Actor (Killer Joe) and Best Supporting Actor (Magic Mike).
The movie refuses to make moral judgments, using the weathered faces of the town’s real-life residents, interspersed with actual actors, to illustrate the plot, which enfolds like a suitably bittersweet, all-too-human fable about love and death, spiced like a homemade barbeque sauce with loneliness, faith, gossip, greed and, ultimately, death.