Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some Violent Images and brief Strong Language
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth
(based on the article MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF EAST TEXAS by Skip Hollandsworth)
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Brady Coleman & Richard Robichaux
Comedy and true-crime are two things that typically don’t go together. Sure, there are occasional exceptions to this: the frequently hilarious Last Podcast on the Left as well as Michael Bay’s underrated PAIN & GAIN. Most of the time though, it seems like this combination is likely to be recipe for disaster. Enter Richard Linklater, an acclaimed indie filmmaker with an interesting (to say the least) filmography behind him. BERNIE, adapted from a magazine article, retells the story of a most unusual murder case in comedic fashion. It does this through the typical true-crime documentary lens, but Linklater blurs the lines of reality as he employs big-name actors, small performers, and actual townspeople playing themselves. The story behind the film is very real (as well as darkly entertaining) and Linklater has crafted an entertaining flick for true-crime buffs with a morbid sense of humor.
Bernie Tiede is a beloved mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie frequently takes elaborate measures to make funerals into memorable experiences, constantly helps out the public, and regularly checks up on lonely widows. After her husband’s funeral, the ornery Marjorie Nugent takes a shine to Bernie. Though she’s the most hated person in her small-town community, somehow Bernie sees something redeemable (possibly money-based) inside of her and becomes her constant companion. Year pass and the verbally/emotionally abusive Majorie mysteriously vanishes. Could Bernie be behind her disappearance? If so, what drove the nicest guy in town to murder? Also, how could the trial possibly play out in a community that adores Bernie? These questions and more are addressed in this faux-documentary that tells a very real story.
While most of the cast members are unknown faces and actual people playing themselves, three big names stand out. Jack Black takes on his most complex, unconventional role (thus far) as Bernie Tiede. While Linklater casts Bernie in the best possible light (and the film actually helped lead to his early release from prison), there’s also a sense of a possibly manipulative sociopath behind the nice guy persona. Whether or not this was Linklater’s or Black’s intention is besides the point, anyone who watches tons of true-crime docs will catch little clues that Bernie might have been in his relationship with Marjorie purely for financial gain. Hints of this are given through his impulsive spending habits and desire to be liked by everyone…to the point of giving them ridiculously expensive gifts. Jack Black’s Bernie is an interesting character to say the least and kept me guessing to whether he was a nice guy turned evil or a manipulative sociopath from the beginning.
Academy award winner Matthew McConaughey is the other huge name in the cast. Playing the lawyer/investigator heading Bernie’s case, McConaughey brings some much-needed levity to the light-hearted true-crime proceedings. He’s a redneck, but a down-to-earth guy with intentions to convict Bernie for his deadly deed. McConaughey balances drama and humor in his performance. One emotionally driven argument in a courtroom feels like it could have come from a straight-faced crime drama, while a scene in a restaurant works as goofy comedy. The mixture is entertaining and interesting. Meanwhile, Shirley MacLaine is totally over-the-top (in a good way) as the nasty-tempered Majorie. She plays the role as a spoiled child in the body of an elderly woman and it’s pretty damned funny to watch.
The best thing about BERNIE comes in the aftermath of the murder. The surprisingly positive small town reaction to Bernie’s cold-blooded crime is easily the funniest part of the entire film. It’s impossible to tell where the unknown actors are and where the actual townsfolk are (until the credits reveal who’s who), but all of their lines are equally hilarious. It’s funny to see an elderly woman justify murder by saying “He only shot her four times.” or another redneck say that the jury that convicted Bernie had “more tattoos than teeth.”
On a slightly negative note, the first two-thirds of this story are your typical true-crime documentary material that you regularly find on A&E or TruTV. Linklater tries makes this build-up feel wholly interesting through his light-hearted lens, but the material still feels more than a little familiar. I also cannot help but feel that the movie might have been more effective if the very real possibility that Bernie was a manipulative psycho was also given equal light in order to balance out both sides of the story. Still, BERNIE is an entertaining good time for fans of true-crime.