Bernie is the most normal movie that I’d ever call odd. It is a very odd little movie, based on the true story of Bernie Tiede. Jack Black plays Bernie, an effeminate assistant funeral director in the east Texas town of Carthage who, was put on trial for murdering his 81-year-old companion Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine). This shocks the town, as Bernie was the nicest person imaginable, endlessly generous with money and time, and Marge was “a hateful old bitch.”
We see Bernie be as accommodating as you could possibly be to every family who came through the funeral home. When Marge’s husband dies, it seems like Bernie almost takes her animosity as a challenge, a wall to be climbed over to become her friend. He does, but before long finds her controlling nature holding him back from being himself. We see Bernie shoot her, there’s never a question of his guilt for us in the audience. But writer/director Richard Linklater interviews many of the real people of Carthage who insist that Bernie couldn’t possibly have done it, he was just too nice and honest and Marge was the dragon of the town and nobody was really gonna miss her. District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) has to combat how he’s gonna get a conviction in a town where the people would sooner have the murderer around than they’d have deceased.
All of this is played as the slightest of comedy. Linklater (co-writing with journalist Skip Hollandsworth, on whose article the screenplay is based) doesn’t go for any big laughs, but he doesn’t try to darken the material either. Black’s extraordinary work as Bernie (a performance of truly the highest order) is pitched just this side of caricature. None of Bernie’s mannerisms are camp or insincere at all, Black goes for realism, making the performance all the more astounding in its creation of this odd character. MacLaine seems like she is having the time of her life playing the nasty Marge, and McConaughey shows again that he can be a good actor with the right material. And the right filmmaker, as both he and Black are working with Linklater again. Black previously starred in School of Rock, while McConaughey starred in The Newton Boys as well as getting his breakout role in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused.
But back to Bernie. I think it’s the townspeople that take this movie over the top, as they’re the ones the most comedy comes from. Linklater, being from Texas, knows these types of people and doesn’t try to make fun of them, he just lets them bring their own small town humor and charm to the movie, and we’re better off for it. My only real complaint about the movie is that there’s no drama. We know from the beginning that Bernie kills Marge, and we don’t really think that Bernie will get off, no matter how much the people love him, so there’s no dramatic tension. And the only real surprises come from the actors. Still, those surprises are so wonderful that the movie should be seen.