Director: Richard Linklater
Does a single act define a lifetime? In the unfortunate case of Bernie Tiede, it seems to have. Otherwise a kind, caring, outgoing and lovable man, Bernie is the story of how a companion from hell can drag you down with them. Jack Black‘s lovable effeminate assistant funeral home director carries the film along a joyful path that twists into a darkness that is both humorous and sad. This is based in real life and, as such, has an odd air of sadness around it. Someone actually went through this. Set in Texas as nearly all of the best Richard Linklater films are, this is one dark comedy that will actually get one talking afterwards.
In Carthage, Texas, there is a kind mortician named Bernie Tiede (Black). He often befriends the older widows, but his relationship always seems purely platonic. When Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) becomes the newest widow, Bernie naturally takes an interest in her. To which she turns him away, again and again. You see, Marjorie, now the wealthiest person in the town, also happens to be extremely disliked in town. She is short-tempered and outspoken, but Bernie doesn’t care. He’s determined to break through her tough outer shell. But he may get more than he wished for.
They seem to finally become an odd mix of friends as they begin traveling the world together and enjoying the finer things in life. But slowly, and without explanation, Marjorie becomes cold towards Bernie, and increasingly demands more and more of his time and attention. For such an outgoing man, this feels like being put in a cage and forced to sing for one person. He balks at the idea, but is so unrelenting in his effort to please her that he follows along…until he simply can’t take it any more and kills her. This is the cruel twist that has one thinking how such a nice, wholesome, God-fearing man could do such a terrible act.
Even the townspeople are shocked, as faux-documentary style interviews go on with each citizen in utter disbelief of Bernie’s actions. Some don’t even disbelieve it, but instead simply side with Bernie regardless. The lone person seeing things straight in the eyes of the law is a hotshot D.A. named Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). He is over-the-top and freewheeling, but once he learns of Bernie’s crime he is out for justice, no matter what. He even slightly smears Bernie’s reputation, positing that he might have been homosexual. The second half of the 106-minute runtime turns into a quirky trial flick, with Danny Buck putting Bernie through a lengthy trial in which many Carthage residents show support for the loveable mortician. Everything turns into a silly, tragic motif of small town life defining the character of a person so deeply that they simply can’t see beyond their limited scope.
The film plays like a straight comedy at first, and slowly morphs into something else entirely. That can become uncomfortable, especially for people who like their bad guys to be easily defined as bad. Linklater, who also co-wrote the script along with Skip Hollandsworth, doesn’t really give a hint as to which side he leans in the matter, which is a blessing. He allows the audience to decide how much guilt they place on Black’s lovably dense character. His charm and passion for life is clearly present, and the fact that this really occurred is both bizarre and fascinating. However, the film does begin to sag a bit in the middle as Bernie moves on with life after murdering Marjorie. The transition has to occur, and it takes a long time getting there.
Whatever side you may come out on, Bernie is sure to start a conversation. Black is rarely better used than he is here, and MacLaine adds her own depth and detail to an unlikeable character. She slowly wins one over, making her betrayal that much more difficult to endure. There are more chuckles than laughs, yet it still feels silly throughout. Watching a comedy out of a real life event can leave a sour taste in one’s mouth, yet the film manages to sidestep that for the most part. Tragic, humorous and intensely fascinating, Bernie is unlike anything one will see this year.
Bernie is now in limited release.
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