Bernie (2011)   Leave a comment

bernie poster

Bernie is based on the bizarre but true story of Bernie Tiede, a popular east Texas mortician whose friendship with the meanest woman in town leads to an unusual sort of tragedy.

Directed by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, A Scanner Darkly), on location in Carthage and other east Texas towns, Bernie uses a combination of feature and documentary style film making to great effect. Linklater intersperses scenes of Bernie leading the church choir or preparing a corpse for a funeral with those of his friends and neighbors telling stories about him and their views of the case.

Jack Black gives a layered performance as the title character and you see this gentle, charismatic man put through his paces by the needy and nasty Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Black also brings the necessary theatricality to the role without going too far. He makes you empathize with this sweet, friendly guy who wanted to help his neighbors and went a little too far.

MacLaine plays bitter, spoiled millionaire Marjorie Nugent and revels in it. She’s Ouiser Boudreaux, the character MacLaine played in Steel Magnolias, but cranked up a notch. Take away Ouiser’s friends, add some money-grubbing relatives, and a long, tedious marriage to the mix and you have Marjorie. Her cruelty and disregard for people has isolated her, but Bernie befriends her and soon the two are inseparable.

If the story ended there, it might make a sweet special on the Hallmark Channel, but it doesn’t and what happens next kept me transfixed. Some of those interviewed in the talking heads segments are Bernie’s real-life friends and neighbors, others, actors portraying them. Those character actors deserve praise because I couldn’t tell who was who. The realistic look and feel to the film come from the setting and the writing. Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth, a reporter who covered the trial and wrote a piece for the Texas Monthly about it in 1998. Entitled Midnight in the Garden of East Texas, the article delved into the backgrounds of the principals and the area and brought some publicity to this strange case.

I enjoyed the film’s semi-documentary style and Jack Black’s performance blew me away. He fit the role perfectly and communicated the eccentricities and goodness of his character without reducing him to caricature. MacLaine, as usual, shines as a thoroughly unlikable, but complex woman. The other stand out performance, given by Matthew McConaughey as District Attorney Danny Buck didn’t surprise me as much as it would have in 2011 since I’ve seen Mud, Killer Joe, and Magic Mike since then. Far from one-dimensional, McConaughey’s take on Buck as a headline grabbing prosecutor who also has respect for the law was thoughtful and fleshed out.

I enjoyed Bernie. It had all the reality a true crime lover craves combined with layered performances from its leads.  As Roger Ebert said in his review, “[Linklater’s] genius was to see Jack Black as Bernie Tiede.” I agree.




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