This review contains spoilers.
Bernie is a curious and brilliant film from director Richard Linklater who was inspired by a magazine article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” which chronicled the bizarre circumstances surrounding the muder of an octogenarian millionaire at the hands of a local funeral parlour director.
Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede was so popular and well regarded by the people of Carthage, Texas that his murder trial had to moved to another town to ensure a fair trial. This seems all the more remarkable when you consider the likelihood that Bernie is gay. This film tells his story.
Bernie is a re-uniting of Richard Linklater and Jack Black who worked together on the family friendly School of Rock. Although that was also a film based on actual events, Bernie is a story of an entirely different flavour.
Black plays Bernie has an affable and effeminate charmer who, despite his weight, seems to always be floating around the room. This makes him such an intriguing personality considering that he is a funeral director who is both an astute salesperson who isn’t afraid of upselling coffins but is also a warm hearted soul who takes the time to console the bereaved with flowers and chocolates many weeks after the service has been finished.
To make the film work, it is important that Linklater establish the type of place that Carthage is and he does this to wonderful effect by interspersing the story with interview footage from actual residents of the town. You can imagine the type of no-nonsense conservative folk who take pride in their neighbourhood. One lady says with great pride that Carthage was awarded the mantle of Most Livable Small Town in Texas in the book Small Towns In America: Part Two. “Its on page 147,” she cooes.
For the people of Carthage, it is almost as if Bernie descended from the heavens. Very few people move to Carthage as it is and Bernie is an out-of-towner who is described by his boss as just ‘having appeared out of nowhere’ in answer to a job posting for the assistant funeral director position.
Bernie makes a name for himself in the town for his cheery attitude and excellent make up work on cadavers. He also gains a reputation for spending most of his time with elderly widows. His confused colleagues at the funeral home note that women his age where invisible to him.
Marge Nugent is an elderly spinster in Carthage who is despised for her sour attitude and ruthless business practices. When her husband passes away, Bernie becomes the first person in the town to successfully befriend her and the two become inseperable. However, after a honeymoon period, Marge’s negative and controlling temperament returns and one day, in a fit of rage, Bernie shoots her dead.
Over the next nine months, Bernie hides her death and does so with relative ease as Nugent was both unpopular and a social recluse. In that time, he spent an extraordinary amount of her money performing good deeds and helping people in the community including providing supplies for the school, rebuilding the local church and helping the unemployed.
Eventually, a nosy insurance salesman becomes suspicious and Marge’s body is eventually uncovered. There is a subsequent trial and then the film’s denouement where we see Jack Black meeting the real Bernie Tiede and we learn a bit more about the residents of Carthage.
Bernie is a terrific film in which the course of events and the final destination of the film are made pretty plain from the outset. What makes this a compelling watch is both Jack Black’s performance as Bernie and also the real life story itself. Bernie is a larger than life personality who seems to have unlimited goodwill to his community but is also guilty of committing a heinous crime, albeit against someone deeply unpopular. It’s a strange tale and its brought to life exceptionally well by Linklater who clearly has an affinity for both Bernie and the townsfolk. For my money this is the best performance I’ve seen from Jack Black in which he is able to challenge his natural energy into a character who is spectacularly awkward in appearance and yet full of confidence in his abilities.