Directed by Richard Linklater
Is Bernie based on a true story or just a literal reenactment of a true story? The film feels incredibly silly for a story about cold-blooded murder, and yet from what I can tell it seems a pretty faithful account of what happened between Bernhardt Tiede (Jack Black) and Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The film even takes on a pseudo-documentary approach with interviews throughout the film of people who knew the real Bernie Tiede.
We meet Bernie through these interviews. They tell us something about this man who moved to Carthage, Texas and who made the whole town fall in love with him. An interviewee will say something about Bernie, and then the subsequent scene will elaborate on this. We don’t learn anything about the man until it’s observed by someone else.
Bernie works as an assistant mortician who continually goes above and beyond. He looks after the deceased’s loved ones, he puts on a wonderfully sentimental performance at the funeral, and he takes interest in the community as a whole. One day he performs the funeral for the husband of a wealthy woman named Marjorie Nugent. The interviewees explain how Marjorie was a very hateful woman, but Bernie looks after her like everyone else.
Soon, however, they became very close. They travelled together, with Marjorie covering all of Bernie’s expenses, and they effectively lived as if they were in a serious relationship. The film, of course, moves beyond these interviews, giving us insight into Bernie’s state of mind.
As Marjorie becomes more territorial and jealous, Bernie snaps and shoots her four times. He then hides the body in the freezer and lives for nine months as if nothing happened, explaining away Marjorie’s absence to those who would ask about it. Because Marjorie was disliked by so many, her absence either goes by unnoticed or without any compassion. It’s the investigation of her financial broker, Lloyd Hornbuckle (Richard Robichaux) who finally uncovers the murder with the help of local police.
The rest of the film deals with Bernie’s trial and the work of prosecutor Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) to send him to prison. Buck is ostensibly the villain even though he’s trying to get a man charged with murder which we know he committed.
By this point in the story we’re meant to love Bernie as much as the rest of Carthage, but Buck is flabbergasted by Bernie’s reputation. He can’t fathom how anyone would want him to go easy on Bernie when it’s widely accepted that he committed the murder. The argument used in Bernie’s defense is that he snapped and wasn’t fully responsible for what he did.
The argument fails, within the movie, and Bernie is sent to jail. After the movie’s premiere, however, his trial was reopened and Bernie was granted his release from prison. He then loved with director Richard Linklater, though he was only recently sent back to prison. So there’s a story there too.
The film feels similar to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. In both cases a young to middle-aged man is seduced by an older woman for reasons other than sexual, and he benefits from her wealth. Both stories end with someone dead when the relationship becomes too much to bear.
Bernie could so easily be a darker film. Linklater’s way into the story is through the eyes of the people who so strongly support him even after his arrest. We’re meant to see Bernie as other saw him, to be as smitten with him as they are. The effect is a story about murder unlike any I’ve ever really seen. Not many movies ask us to sympathize with the murder, and not many movies depict a murder and trial with so little question as to the suspect’s guilt.
The film is playful, and the characters are very broad, particularly in the case of Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey. Nothing about this film feels plausible which is incredibly considering it really happened.
The performances are pretty great, and Jack Black gets to be as performative as any movie he’s been in, including Linklater’s School of Rock. For a true story murder, there is a lot for Black to do. To depict all of Bernie’s extracurricular activities, Black has to sing and dance, be solemn and comforting, and he has to depict the brief mental breakdown that compels Bernie to commit murder.
Up Next: Lost in Translation (2003), Double Indemnity (1944), The Lost Weekend (1945)