It tells the story of Bernie Tiede, an odd, affable mortician (Jack Black) who becomes friends with an older, wealthy, often quite nasty widow named Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). The friendship stands—that is, until Bernie shoots Marjorie in the back.
And then comes the unbelievable way Bernie hid her death from his small town of Carthage, Texas—claiming she was away on sick leave when in reality her body was being stored in a garage freezer for months.
Even weirder is the way that, once caught and convicted, Bernie’s trial is required to be held in another town since everyone in Carthage found him so charming and Marjorie so foul. How could they possibly convict him when one of the townspeople even admits they would have shot Marjorie themselves had they had the chance?
Here lies the interesting hybrid of “Bernie,” half documentary, half narrative feature. It is filled to the brim with talking heads, individuals whom I discovered in the credits as being actual locals of Carthage familiar with this case.
Interlaced with their hilarious, small-town, country-soaked commentary is director Richard Linklater’s vision of the story—crowned by a completely unexpected performance by Black, a deliciously wicked portrayal from MacLaine, and a gut-busting effort from Matthew McConaughey as the baseball bat wielding District Attorney seeking Bernie’s head.
Linklater balances these elements well, fluently expressing the absurdity of this story and inviting us to take part and invest in the background info, the murder, the cover-up, the arrest, the trial, and the conviction. By the end of the film, it’s hard not to feel in better company with those charming Carthage folks. After a little over 100 minutes, it felt like I had been glued to the TV and invested in this case for months.
And Linklater’s sly writing of the character with Skip Hollandsworth, brought to life impressively by Black, is rivaled only by his keen direction. This movie is slick, fast, fun, engaging, interesting, and remarkably fascinating—executed in a way that constantly challenged the fact this is based from truth. It lends itself to the cliché nature of the phrase, “You can’t make this stuff up.”
Well, you can’t. “Bernie” is a story just insane enough to actually happen, and too insane not to be shared. Here, I concur, we have received a generous retelling with a talented director and equally talented cast. This movie tickled me delighted from start to finish.
Greg Vellante is a film critic for The Eagle Tribune.