Review: Bernie

Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by:Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Mathew McConaughey
Released: August 16, 2012
Grade: B+

Bernie
Set in the 1990s, Bernie is based on a true story… and it’s very interesting one at that.  Bernie Tiede worked as an assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas.  With a population of less than 7,000, you can get the feeling that it’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone.

Bernie had always been one of the most loved members of the community.  If you wanted to prepare for a funeral, he was the man you went to see.  Every tiny detail was covered and he was renowned for his dedication and impeccable service.  Bernie was also a regular churchgoer and did his best to boost the cultural profile of the area.

That’s not to say people didn’t gossip behind Bernie’s back.  People were quick to speculate as to why a thirty-something guy lived alone and didn’t have a girlfriend.  They also found it strange that he spent so much time in the company of elderly, widowed women.  He’d comfort them after the death of their husbands and visit their homes regularly with gifts of flowers and soaps.

The rumour-mill ran riot when he struck up a friendship with Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widower in her late 70s.  You’d be lucky to find anyone in Carthage who liked Marjorie.  A character in the film sums her up best when she says “that people in town would have shot her for $5.”  Bernie and Marjorie became very close and were always seen in each other’s company.  They also went on numerous overseas holidays together.

So what was really going on?  Why would a nice guy like Bernie be spending so much time with a cranky old lady who had isolated herself from everyone?  Was he interested in her money?  That’s the first conclusion that many people reached.  Maybe he was just being friendly?  Perhaps there was something romantic between them?

Whilst this is based on actual events and you can find out how it ends through a simple internet search, I’ll keep my mouth shut and not reveal anything more in this review.  I wasn’t familiar with the story myself and was shocked by the developments in the film’s second half.

Inspired by a magazine article, writer-director Richard Linklater (Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise) has adapted this story for the screen.  He could have told it as a straight forward drama but instead, he’s made it as a dark comedy that somewhat resembles a documentary.  It includes interviews with actual residents of Carthage who share their thoughts on events as they unfold.

Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede and is a good fit for the part.  He’s not the zany, over-the-top Jack Black that you’ll remember from films like School Of Rock and Nacho Libre.  Yes, there are laughs but the role also requires subtlety and mystery.  Black proves that he has the range and seems to thrive working alongside the legendary Shirley MacLaine (Terms Of Endearment, The Apartment).

Whilst it feels a little too one-sided, Bernie is still an intriguing film that has something to say about justice and the importance of how we are perceived.  It’s provided me with several decent conversation starters that I can’t wait to share.