Do numerous good deeds cancel out one terrible action? That’s the question Bernie poses but, rightly, never answers. Jack Black delights as the title character and Richard Linklater returns with his best film in years.
Based on a true story, the film actually portrays the real-life tale very accurately. Instead of bending the truth to make it a more cinematic story, director Richard Linklater creates his film around facts. These are the facts: Bernie, a seemingly normal and friendly member of a small, Texas community, kills Marjorie Nugent, the town’s elderly curmudgeon, hiding behind lies for nine months until he’s finally caught. But the kicker is that even after confessing, most of the town still believes him innocent, or at least not worthy of a prison sentence.
Labeled a comedy, it’s more amusing than it is hilarious but that doesn’t cheapen its charms. It’s half documentary with the real towns-folk of Carthage, Texas speaking to the camera, and half narrative, with a few also portraying themselves in acted scenes. But the main characters of of the film are Jack Black as Bernie Tiede and Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie Nugent, while Matthew McConaughey shows up later as District Attorney Danny Buck. It’s a film that appears light and frivolous on its surface, almost creating caricatures out of the three, but it has a serious undertone that grows throughout the film.
Bernie is the type of guy that everyone likes. He moved to Carthage to take a position as an Assistant Funeral Director and immediately hit it off with the town. Going above and beyond for the recent widows of Carthage, he would check up on them days or weeks after their husbands’ funeral to see how they were doing. Soon, he became ingrained in the very fabric of the community. He appeared to excel at anything, from singing to home decorating, and was the talk of the town.
He soon met Marjorie Nugent after her husband passed. Unlike Bernie, she was universally hated by Carthage. Even her own grandchildren attempted to sue her for trust money they believed was owed to them. But instead of an elderly, hate-filled woman, Bernie saw an old woman who was alone. So he checked up on her after the funeral until they became inseparable. Having been left a large sum of money from her husband, she was able to do as her heart desired—and she did. Soon her and Bernie were traveling around the world, flying first class and staying in the fanciest hotels, with Marjorie footing all the bills. They ate all their meals together and attended local events together, until rumors started to arise about the true nature of their relationship. Bernie just said he felt sorry for her, even her own family seemed to hate her. That is, until, he shot her.
Why did he do it? That’s what the film explores. Was it a calculated murder to steal her money or was it just a momentary act of insanity? Even Bernie admitted she became controlling and mean spirited. But does that justify a murder? Plenty of people in the town believed so.
The film’s tag line is “a story so unbelievable it must be true” and that’s a pretty accurate statement. Aside from the murder, Bernie was a model citizen. Better than that, even, so it’s an understatement to say his confession sent shock waves throughout the town. Having the actual residents of Carthage talk about Marjorie and Bernie creates this reality from which Black and MacLaine arise.
Black adopts a subtle southern drawl and exudes an effeminate air about himself. While he comes off as a man who’s always eager to help others, almost never thinking about himself, Black undercuts it with a mysteriousness about the guy. He doesn’t seem to be interested in women, aside from Marjorie and he doesn’t seem to be interested in any one person as he is with Marjorie. But despite these possible character flaws and the rumors they spark, the town doesn’t seem to question his motives as just a really good guy.
Marjorie, on the other hand, is just down right mean. MacClaine plays her with a permanent scowl on her face which only lifts periodically when she’s with Bernie. As with Bernie, the genesis of her cold-heartedness is debated but remains mysterious. Many, including her immediate family, believe she was born that way. Jack Black and Shirley MacClaine seem like an unlikely pairing, but the two are wonderful together.
Most view Black as the silly fat guy who can sing, but many fail to realize that he has some serious chops, which he displays here. MacClaine portrays Marjorie as so unlikable that it becomes enthralling to watch. The film is really a perfect sum of its parts. The acting is superb, even McConaughey as the possibly self-serving, but definitely overzealous District Attorney that later prosecutes Bernie, and it’s shot beautifully. It’s a film that’s quite hard to categorize as Linklater blends genres and forms to create something wholly new. It’s sure to be a film that slides under the radar only to be discovered after its theatrical run but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a fantastic piece of cinema.
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