A film review by Craig J. Koban August 28, 2012

RANK:  #21


2012, R, 98 mins.


Bernie: Jack Black / Marjorie: Shirley MacLaine / Danny: Matthew McConaughey / Sheriff: Brandon Smith

Directed by Richard Linklater / Written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, based on Hollandsworth's Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas.”

Richard 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.  

Bernie 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. 

It’s 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 community.  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 all.  

He 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 it coming? 



The 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 poor sap. 

Marjorie, 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. 

Perhaps 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 meager, 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.  

The 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.

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