Movie review: Bernie
Jack Black stars as a 'good Christian man' in Texas with a terrible secret
Posted: September 25, 2013
Putting on a brave face. As an assistant funeral director, Bernie Tiede mainly cared about making the dead look good. That was until he met Marjorie Nugent.
"What you're fixin' to see is a true story," a title card tells us right at the outset of the 2011 film Bernie. The events may be strange, and the presentation of the material is certainly tongue-in-cheek, but the story is utterly believable, which is saying something given the film's main character is played by actor Jack Black.
His role is that of Bernie Tiede, a happy-go-lucky, charming and very sociable mortician - he prefers the title "funeral director" - whose main goal in life is to make the dead presentable to the living. He is also a smart businessman, who knows how to sell a casket to a potential client, even when that client is as stingy as a miser, by playing to the sense of self-worth either of the client or of a loved one who can make a more compelling case for buying a luxury casket.
Bernie bursts out of the gate with great energy and winning creativity. Filmed as a kind of documentary, with many interviews conducted with the townspeople, the location is cleverly sketched out thanks to one elderly gentleman who explains how varied the state of Texas is, with the help of some humorous animation in the other half of the frame. This story takes place in a town in east Texas called Carthage, and although this is not the story of a modern-day Dido and Aeneas, it can be fun to try to draw parallels.
Everybody in the story is smiling. It's like France McDormand's impression of the Twin Cities inhabitants in Fargo all over again. Bernie, who likes to take care of people, dead or alive, and makes sure to comfort those who have lost a loved one, is particularly radiant. "He had the ability to make the world seem kind," says one woman, indirectly suggesting he is no longer in their small town.
Directed by Richard Linklater
With Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
This overwhelming sense of happiness makes the person at the center of the narrative, Marjorie Nugent, all the more odious. She is a rich woman who has recently become a widow, and Bernie persists in making her feel good about herself, thinking that she is merely acting out because everybody has made up their minds that they don't like her.
They have good reason not to like this cold-hearted woman, but Bernie believes there is some good in her, although we can never really understand why; on the contrary, we easily empathize with those who call her "a mean, old witch." In fact, Bernie remains quite an enigma, because he is the one person - save Marjorie, whom we care about next to nothing at all - who is never interviewed. We don't know his intentions or his motivations; we only see him from the outside, as the townspeople did, and the impression we get is of a kind man, almost childlike, who always puts others' needs above his own - at least, until he doesn't.
At the local funeral parlor, he is assistant funeral director, but his involvement with Nugent soon transforms him into her own assistant, as he is berated whenever he doesn't help her out exactly when and how she says she needs him. He has to weigh this possessiveness against all the perks he gets from being her close and only confidant, but sometimes even the most mild-mannered individuals reach their Rubicon.
The film is a welcome change of pace for director Richard Linklater, whose recent Before Midnight was an exhausting look at a couple's domestic turmoil, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he tells a story that may be historically accurate but is portrayed with a real sense of creative mischief.
One of the most hilarious scenes occurs at a local secondary school, where a car accident has left a few students dead - their bloody, lifeless bodies sprawled over the hoods of the smashed cars. While the announcement is made over a megaphone that the students are in fact dead, and a crowd of curious onlookers forms on the sidewalk, we can see the Grim Reaper, sickle in hand, circling the scene of the accident. It is an odd moment that acknowledges Linklater's directorial license with his material but doesn't diminish the power of the events.
There are other moments that seem just too ridiculous to be true, including the use of an attendance board in church, which records the number of churchgoers on any given Sunday, but they are never at odds with the tone of the film, which maintains a steady balance between comedy and drama, never dipping too far into either.
The people who are interviewed don't feature much in the world of the film, which is a pity, as this could have properly reconciled the two parts of the production, and a few courtroom scenes toward the end make the film lose steam.
In a very humorous way, Linklater manages to examine the terrible anger one person can elicit from some of the nicest people in the world, and even if this were not a true story, it contains characters with enough recognizably human traits that it wouldn't have any trouble connecting with an audience.
André Crous can be reached at
Tags: Richard Linklater, Jack Black, true story, Shirley MacLaine.