Approaching the local theater to see “Bernie,” I had next to no knowledge about what type of film I was getting into. No trailers or television spots stuck in my mind, and the limited theater count prevented the film from making big headlines. The only thing I knew for sure was that Jack Black was one of the stars (presumably the one called Bernie) and Richard Linklater (whose very best works include “Dazed and Confused” and “School Of Rock”) was the director.
Boy, am I glad my preliminary investigation didn’t go too deep, because “Bernie” was a highly engrossing surprise. Not just because it’s really good, but also because I would come to find out that it’s based on a real life story that seems almost too outlandish to be true. Taken straight from a 1998 article in Texas Monthly titled “Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas,” the film is an unconventional crime movie buoyed by a stellar cast and subdued direction by Linklater.
The 2012 movie year is still young, but Jack Black deserves some serious Oscar consideration for his portrayal of Bernie Tiede, a belt-at-the-belly resident of Carthage, TX, who might just be the greatest funeral director you’ve ever seen. Not only is he a qualified professional with a boundless knowledge and passion for his particular line of work, but he’s also just a fantastic guy. Caring, unassuming, charismatic, genuine, generous, inquisitive and outgoing are just a few of the adjectives that I scribbled onto my notepad in the dark theater.
When you ask Bernie to organize a funeral commemorating the life of a loved one, you get the whole package. As a mortician, he meticulously fixes up the body with cosmetic procedures that not only make the deceased look presentable, but practically flawless. He’s an experienced organ player if you require a musical service. He’ll even assist you in purchasing the proper casket to send the dead on their way. Quite literally, he brings an element of joy to a profession that naturally deals in grief. In documentary footage featuring the real denizens of Carthage who knew Bernie Tiede firsthand, they have nothing but great things to say about him.
And then there’s the elderly Mrs. Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), an affluent widow recognized for her ill temper and callous detachment, or as one Carthage native colorfully puts it, “her nose is up so high, she’d drown in a rainstorm.” Following her husband’s funeral, Bernie does everything in his power to console and befriend her, whether that means sending flowers and goodie baskets to her doorstep, offering weekend vacations, or simply giving her some kind of companionship at home. Eventually, his efforts pay off and he finally penetrates the thorny, unwelcoming exterior that no other Texan had the guts to prod at with a ten-foot stick.
Within just a few short weeks, Bernie and Mrs. Nugent have grown inseparable. They go everywhere together, they do everything together, and all the townspeople are baffled as to why the most beloved man in Carthage is spending every waking minute with perhaps the most hated woman in the whole dadgum county.
A natural question that would pop up is whether or not the two’s relationship was romantic, though a few locals contested that Bernie was, in fact, a closeted homosexual. Others suggested he was celibate. Either way, this offbeat bond is never presented in a sexual context beyond casual handholding at a day spa (thank God, considering the age difference). These were just two people who valued each other’s company greatly.
But then things get profoundly weird. Mrs. Nugent reverts back to her old ways and starts yelling and nagging at Bernie continuously. And like a brief lapse of psychosis, Bernie murders the widow in the garage with a rifle. It’s difficult to imagine what possessed a seemingly normal guy like him to commit homicide, and after he finishes the deed, he’s horrified with himself as though the action were an out-of-body experience.
Struggling to convincingly cover up his crime day after day, month after month is one thing, but then walks in the county district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey, in another first-rate performance). A guy who prides himself for his most recent arrest of five deadbeat fathers, Davidson smells something fishy about the madam’s ‘absence,’ and for that matter, Bernie himself.
What’s amazing through all of this is how many people in the documentary footage still stand by Bernie’s side after the dust has settle. I suppose somebody that overwhelmingly nice and polite was bound to have some dark streaks repressed in their subconscious. What began as a nice portrait of an impossibly lovable character transforms right before our very eyes into one of the most fascinating and complex character studies in recent memory. It’s not often you actually find yourself feeling wholly sympathetic for a guy with a murder on his hands, but Jack Black truly does the trick.