It’s taken quite a while to get Bernie to the UK. It’s almost a year since its US debut and a few months after it flirted the edges of the awards ceremonies, such as Jack Black being nominated for a Golden Globe. Now it’s here though, but has it been worth the wait?
The film is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (Black), a quiet, God-fearing, possible gay mortician in a small Texas town. Popular with the locals due to his unfailing kindness, he manages to strike up a friendship with aging rich widow Marjorie Nugent, a woman most people think is mean and thoroughly unpleasant.
She becomes increasingly close to Bernie, allowing him to share her life of expensive travel and culture, but monopolising his time and becoming increasingly abusive and controlling, until it gets to the point where she demands he does whatever she wants, whenever she wants. While Bernie continues to defend Marjorie to the outside world, he finds it increasingly difficult to take her smothering mistreatment – until he snaps and kills her.
Bernie is an unusual film that’s made almost in the style of a docu-drama. It’s full of talking-head style interviews, although quite how much is true and how much isn’t is muddied by the fact that some of the interviewees are real residents of Carthage, Texas, while others are actors playing real people. It does help to give the film an air of (rather one-sided) authenticity, allowing director Richard Linklater to explore the small town life of his home state while also telling a fascinating and strange true story, even if it ultimately confuses how much we should trust what we’re told.
The whole thing could very easily have come unstuck, particularly as the script seems slightly unsure of itself, but it’s pulled together by Linklater’s sympathetic and thankfully restrained direction, a fun turn from Matthew McConaughey as a showboating prosecutor and a smart, nuanced, rather sweet performance from Jack Black. Indeed, he’s perhaps a little too successful, as it’s only as the credits role that you realise this is a film resolutely on the side of a man who shot a little old lady in the back four times, and pretty much ignores any evidence that perhaps he wasn’t just a sweet guy pushed past his limit.
However it you don’t mind that moral ambiguity, it’s entertaining, often pretty funny and sometimes surprisingly moving. I’m not convinced the talking-head idea fully works, as it confuses the line between fact and fiction more than truly being illuminating, but it certainly provides a few funny moments.
I also found it interesting how the film handles Bernie’s sexuality, as it doesn’t shy away from the fact that many thought he was gay, but it never comes to any conclusions about it. That’s seemingly part of its one-sided nature, as at Bernie’s murder trial the prosecution supposedly uncovered evidence that he’d given gifts to men after he’d killed Marjorie, using her money. That isn’t exactly sympathetic and doesn’t get mentioned in the movie, instead sticking to people suggesting they thought he was celibate or merely slightly effeminate.
The one-sided nature isn’t just the film’s though, as it’s the fact that everyone liked Bernie even after they discovered what he’d done, that’s one of the main themes of the movie and one of the impetuses behind making it in the first place. Indeed the murder is an incredibly rare case where the murder trial was moved out of the jurisdiction where it took place, because the prosecution was worried there wouldn’t be a fair trial, simply because everyone knew Bernie and thought he was such a great chap (normally it’s the other way around, where the local populace is so angry and primed to convict that a trial gets moved).
Overall Verdict: Oddly sweet and surprisingly funny for a true-life tale about the murder of a little old lady. Not everything about Bernie works, but enough does succeed that it’s entertaining and worth watching, especially if you want proof Jack Black can be a pretty good actor if he puts his mind to it.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac