A film review by Craig J. Koban August 28, 2012
2012, R, 98 mins.
2012, R, 98 mins.
Bernie: Jack Black / Marjorie: Shirley MacLaine / Danny: Matthew
McConaughey / Sheriff: Brandon Smith
Linklater’s BERNIE has a fantastic opening scene.
In it we are introduced a Carthage, Texas residing mortician and
funeral director name Bernie Tiede as he conducts a class on how to
prepare a recently diseased body for a funeral and later burial.
During this quietly absorbing and endlessly fascinating sequence we
see the meek mannered and soft spoken Bernie discuss all of the minutia of
prepping open-casket bodies, going over details as far ranging as trimming
nails, removing hair, how to keep eyelids and mouths from opening (via the
simplistic and ingenious usage of Krazy Glue), laying foundation makeup on
the face, and even how to turn the corpse’s head at just the right angle
and placing his hands just so to convey the proper solemn message.
comes off as so cordial, so professional, and so inwardly calm in this
introductory scene that it’s
astounding to think that this same man would eventually commit murder.
almost amazing to consider that the events and characters of BERNIE are based
on actual events. Taken from the 1998 Texas Monthly magazine
article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth
(who, in turn, co-wrote the film adaptation with Linklater), BERNIE
chronicles the mightily incredulous, but true tale of the 1996 murder
of an 81-year-old Carthage oil widow named Marjorie Nugent at the hands of
her 39-year-old - how do I best describe him? - paid
friend/companion/servant Bernie Tiede, who at the time worked as the town
mortician and was one of the most respected and liked members of his
In 1993 he left his funeral directorial duties to work for Marjorie
full-time, that is until he shoot her four times in the back, stuffed her
into her own freezer, duck taped it shut, and tried to keep it a secret from
did confess to the murder and - later at his trial - he pleaded that he
was being bullied and abused by the venomous Marjorie, who was arguably the
least popular citizen of Carthage and alienated herself from everyone
living there, including her own children.
As Bernie placed himself further within Marjorie’s ever-so-small
circle of trust, she inevitably granted him power of attorney and control
over the majority of her wealth. Bernie
did indeed take money from the woman, but he injected it back into the
poorer members of the community and businesses that required it.
Bernie was such a proud, dignified, and adored member of Carthage
that no one believed that he was capable of such a heinous crime…even when he
confessed to it. I mean,
Marjorie was such an unmitigated b-i-t-c-h in their eyes…maybe she had
miracle of BERNIE is that Linklater approaches the material not with
mocking disdain or with a funeral director’s solemnity, but rather with
a highly inquisitive and semi-perplexed eye.
What’s even more miraculous is how he crafts a film that’s
unusually funny, tender minded, and oddly appealing considering that
it’s about the cold murder of an elderly woman. Maybe this has something to do with the notion that Bernie
– even when driven to a momentary dark and emotionally repressive state
where he cracks and makes a mistake that he can never, ever correct – is
a disarmingly nice and caring human being that seems to care
about all of the local widows that he had previously helped bury their
respective husbands. He was
not just the town mortician, but a valued and revered friend and confidant
to most in the town. Even
when he confesses his ultimate sin, it’s really hard not to feel for the
to be fair, didn’t deserve to be shot in the back and killed, but
Carthage-ites don’t see it that way (one of them describes her as a
woman that any soul would have “shot for five dollars” because she was
so vile (her kids despised her so much that they even sued her at one
point for being left out of her will).
Linklater does something interesting while laying down the more
linear aspects of Bernie and Marjorie’s story: he includes interviews
with several Carthage residents in a pseudo-documentary style – some of
them are real, some are played by actors – who lend a sort of eclectic
local flavor to the film.
Many of these townsfolk seem incredibly unfazed that Bernie
murdered Marjorie and kept her in a freezer for nearly a year.
Linklater sprinkles these testimonials loosely, but with a purpose
through the film to lend the very, very odd story of Bernie some much
needed credibility, but at the same time he celebrates the lives of
these people, which gives BERNIE a richer and more multifaceted scope than
it would have otherwise had; they help to define the overall personality
of the film.
the greatest achievement of this almost blacker than black comedy is that
it contains the best and most live-in performance of Jack Black’s
career, who flees away from his typical histrionic and more annoying camera
mugging theatrics and dials things way, way down to portray a more
restrained, and calm character than he is used to.
Like Robin Williams before him, Black is a comedic actor that is far better when he’s playing against type, and in BERNIE he
shows more than ever that he is capable of dialing into a layered and
complex character and imbue him with palpable traits that make him feel
real and not like a cartoonish buffoon.
The temptation of a lesser actor would be to reduce Bernie to
peculiar caricature, but Black and Linklater understand that Bernie is
better played as a humble figure of mostly pure impulses that did
inescapably descend into depravity.
Black is so thoroughly enthralling and authentic in the role that
you do believe that this man of the people and considerate soul would be
driven to something as heinous as murder.
other performances are juicily engaging as well.
Shirley McClaine is more than credible as the most disliked woman
of Carthage (she’s so deceptively vile in the film, suggesting toxic
mean-spiritedness with subtle of glances and sly body language) and
Linklater alumni Matthew McConaughey – almost unrecognizable playing his
umpteenth film lawyer role – has a tricky part as the local D.A. that
has a very difficult task of convincing just about everyone around him
that Bernie deserves to be locked away for good.
The film culminates with Bernie’s trial as his defense makes a
rather feeble attempt to label their client as man driven by
circumstance and his dire predicament to commit his killing.
The jury didn’t buy it.
The Texas-born Linklater is a director with a real varied career. He made the great coming-of-age 70’s themed high school comedy DAZED AND CONFUSED, the period drama THE NEWTON BOYS, the mind-bending sci-fi flick A SCANNER DARKLY, and the reality-based ME AND ORSON WELLES. He shoots BERNIE with a modest economy and lets the drama and comedy of this highly offbeat murder-mystery narrative flow naturally throughout while expediently crafting a cheeky and curious exploration into small-town Americana. That, and he makes BERNIE a shockingly rosy and upbeat affair considering its darker and more decidedly macabre core. Yes, Bernie committed an unpardonable act of pure evil and deserved to go the prison, but he undoubtedly remained – at least in the film – a fairly likeable man that did wrong and acknowledged it. That’s a testament to Linklater’s astute handling of this tricky material and, most crucially, Black’s finely textured performance that deserves Oscar attention.