Bernie is a 2011 film directed by Richard Linklater starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. It is frequently labeled as a “black comedy,” which I think is a little misleading, because as a black comedy it isn’t that great of a film. The emphasis on this film should instead be placed on its nature as a true story about an assistant funeral director who kills a rich widow and fools a town into thinking she is alive months after.
The film is presented in a documentary format where members of the town of Carthage, Texas give their opinions to the events that occur in the story. We are introduced to Bernie Tiede (Black), an expert mortician who is adored and valued by the entire community. Bernie goes the extra mile not only in his work, but in everything he contributes to Carthage. The good Christian man takes extra interest in elderly widows after their husbands have passed, frequently bringing them flowers and treats. After multiple attempts, Bernie begins a friendship with the recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), a rich, bitter woman whom most of the town dislikes. Bernie enjoys the comforts of Marjorie’s wealth, but eventually she becomes too possessive of him and very spiteful. In a moment of anger, Bernie kills her and maintains a lie that she is simply very sick and refuses to see anyone. This goes on for nine months, during which time Bernie reaps the benefits of Marjorie’s fortune, mostly giving it to those in the community. When he is eventually found out and tried, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey) insists that the case be moved out of county because even after confessing his own guilt Bernie was so well liked, and there would be no unbiased jury. The real Bernie Tiede is currently serving a life sentence, but is still a valued member of his prison community.
As I mentioned earlier, Bernie is not a fantastic film on its own merits. Though I had read about this film before, I had forgotten that it was based on a true story until near the end; which is what changed my opinion of the film. With this in mind, the various “talking heads” in the film (made up of actors and real Carthage citizens) add to the intrigue of this film. The people of Carthage genuinely hated Marjorie Nugent for the most part and many of them still loved and adored Bernie Tiede even after he was convicted. The power of one man’s amiability in this story is fascinating. And despite some protests from real Carthage citizens, I think that the film takes a pretty neutral stance on the nature of the murder and Tiede himself. Was Tiede a calculating killer? Did he have this whole thing planned out from the start? Who knows. Jack Black’s performance really adds to the ambiguity of this somewhat lighthearted crime drama. He walks a fine line between reality and humor with his portrayal of the loveable Tiede, a man who sat on his guilt for nine months and curiously gave a fortune to an entire town. It’s a fascinating story that is worth a viewing for its bizarre reality.
Final Grade: ★★★★ 4/5 Stars
Rent It? Yes, but don’t expect big laughs.