“Bernie” is a black comedy directed by Richard Linklater recounting the events surrounding the trial of Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede, an assistant mortician convicted of the first degree murder of Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow.
Based on a Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Hollandsworth, it stars Jack Black in the title role and follows a mockumentary style detailing the characters and the events leading up to and after the trail. The first half or so is something of a distanced character study, revealing Bernie as he’s seen through the eyes of his community. He’s incredibly well liked, very social, and appears to be genuinely caring. Just about everyone in the town seems to like the guy, regardless of his quirks (many seem to believe he’s gay or at least celibate).
The movie details his rise to power, so to speak, as he enters the town and transforms it from within. He first helps reinvent the way funerals and caskets are handled, making it blossom into a highly profitable business (helped along by his personality and apparent belief in the cause). He manages to charm nearly every little old lady in town, and with his charisma and social skills, he becomes deeply ingrained within the community, becoming the most popular man around town.
A lot of time is spent establishing this, and it’s contrasted against the misery and crotchety old widow Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. She meets Bernie after the death of her husband, and true to his usual fashion, he befriends her. This particular friendship plays out a bit differently than his others, as he becomes her constant companion and, as everyone in town seems to think, much more so. She takes him on expensive trips with her around the world, buys him anything he wants, and eventually gives him the power of attorney, legally allowing him to spend her money as he sees fit.
While this seems pretty cut and dry, the story is told with talking head style accounts from the other people in the town. These commentaries provide an unusual and often contradictory account of the events that are depicted, and also give the movie something extra in its storytelling. While to any outsider Bernie would be a gold-digger, abusing an elderly woman’s loneliness for the high life, all of them see only the positive that he does for them and community. Such as buying addition to their church and school, or giving people gifts at every opportunity. He’s just so darn friendly.
This plays an even bigger role when the murder actually takes place. For whatever reason, the movie never focuses on it too explicitly, Bernie just snaps. Marjorie Nugent is a cold and conniving old woman who grows jealous of Bernie’s time away from her, demanding that he always be near her. Unlike Bernie, she is universally despised by the same community, including most of her family. The public response is alarmingly forgiving of his criminal act, willing to ignore or flat out deny that he even did it, a fact that baffles the prosecuting district attorney (Matthew McConaughey).
The acting in the movie is very good, with Jack Black giving a surprisingly convincing performance as the effeminate Bernie. Matthew McConaughey as a southern lawyer is as natural as you might expect, given how many times he’s played a character like this, and Shirley MacLaine is also memorable as the depressing and nightmarishly miserable old Marjorie, but the characters are never explored on a personal level. Even with all the time spent dissecting the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie, it’s examined behind a glass. The movie never takes a stance arguing for or against the intentions of Bernie, merely suggesting, but instead places a stronger focus on the reactions he gets from the small town people around him.
This is probably the most interesting aspect of “Bernie” (since without it it's a very light little story), and what it seems to be truly about. The actual court case is fairly straightforward, but what isn’t is the community response to it. It’s an almost unanimous mass denial of one man’s guilt, even after all the evidence and the man’s own testimony clearly show otherwise. These people choose to blindly not believe something that by all accounts has been proven to be true. They make excuses for him and openly support his action in church.
It’s incredible the way that even an act of murder in the first degree can be so easily excused under certain circumstances. I guess if you’re nice enough, people will let you get away with anything.