Bernie (2012)

22 Jul

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Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Bernie” is a quite unusual film. It takes a true story, tells it in both fictional and documental format (so perhaps a docudrama?), and despite the grimness that underlies the tale, is quirky, funny, and strangely sweet. This is a movie about a man who has murdered a person, and because he was so well-liked among his community, hardly anyone believed it and no one wanted him taken away for a life sentence in prison. They love this man, they hated his murder victim, so they hoped he would get off scot-free.

The “Bernie” in the title of Richard Linklater’s droll comedy refers to Bernie Tiede, who was an east Texas “funeral director” (kinder term for “mortician”) who loved everyone in town as much as everyone in town loved him. He was a regular man of the people—always participating in social events, always making friends, always being there for those in grief, and so on. He was even able to make the meanest, most disliked woman in Carthage, Texas—Marjorie Tugent—like him. He was that lovable.

Unfortunately, while Marjorie has been using her late husband’s money to much extent, she is able to make herself more than Bernie could bear. She hires him as her personal assistant, to be there at her beck and call. And Bernie, being the nice pushover, always had to respond, no matter how busy he was or how much he could take from this woman anymore. And before he could take it any longer (and presumably before he could find a shot at gaining some inheritance from her), he picks up an “armadillo gun” and shoots her four times from behind.

For nine months, Bernie hides Marjorie’s body in a meat freezer in her own garage and constantly makes up excuses for her absence. It’s not until her stockbroker shows enough concern to use her estranged family to find out what he suspects. The police find the body and bring Bernie in on a first-degree murder charge. How did the local townspeople react, especially since Bernie actually did confess to the crime? They stick up for him and try to convince the district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, to help get him off. They do believe that Marjorie was too mean to handle and she deserved to die, and Bernie acted in “self-defense.”

Can you believe this? I mean, really, can you? I can see why “Bernie” has been labeled as “a story so unbelievable it must be TRUE.” This really did happen. Bernie Tiede was a real person from Carthage, Texas and he really did have enough respect from many people that no one believed it when he killed this elderly woman. To tell this story would be a difficult task, but luckily, director/co-writer Richard Linklater is a filmmaker who loves to take risks, and with “Bernie,” he has somehow found a way to make the feel of the film light and dark at the same time. I think you need both for telling a story like this, and “Bernie” is able to effectively mix the comedy with the grimness in such a seamless manner that sometimes you laugh but don’t know how to feel about what you’re laughing at, and other times you strangely care about what you’re watching and don’t seem to mind so much about what you find funny. It’s a strange concept, but it works.

And I’ll tell you what else works about “Bernie”—the lead performance from Jack Black as Bernie Tiede himself. This is Jack Black like I’ve never seen him before. He’s restrained, he’s mannered, he’s almost overly mild, which makes him somewhat creepy but oddly endearing, and he just creates this character with everything that hardly anyone would suspect of a typical Jack Black character. This is easily the best performance I’ve seen from Jack Black—he’s given just the right role and is able to pull it off successfully. Even I liked this man Bernie, based on this performance. I didn’t want to see him go to prison!

Shirley MacLaine plays Marjorie, the bitch of a woman who maybe didn’t “deserve” to die, but she was a bitter, mean old woman after all. Matthew McConaughey is Danny Buck Davidson, the D.A. who doesn’t care about how well-liked Bernie as long as he can prove that what he did was so wrong. Other actors play certain parts, like the stockbroker and Marjorie’s “grieving” granddaughter. But everyone else, and this is the weirdest and yet most intriguing part of the framing of this story, is interviewed in a documentary style in the most conventional ways of such a structure, and they are, for the most part, Carthage residents playing themselves. It’s all the more fascinating in that when they talk about Bernie, they really are talking about the actual Bernie Tiede.

“Bernie” is not necessarily a “deep” or “moving” film, depending on how you want to look at it (though maybe you are moved by Black’s portrayal of this man). But it isn’t supposed to be. It’s just an odd, offbeat docu-comedy (yes, that is what I’m calling this movie) about a lovable man who did a hateful deed that no one could ever believe, and it’s the kind of film you’re glad that Linklater would make and that Black could star in. It’s a treasure of a movie.

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