“Bernie” is a true crime story that falls into the stranger than fiction category. Based on a true story, the details are so strange, the characters so colorful that it feels ripped from the pen of a Hollywood screenwriter rather than the pages of the Panola County Newspaper.
Jack Black is Bernie Tiede, a portly and courtly Southern funeral director. He is beloved by the folks of the small east Texas town of Carthage for his work with the church, his community involvement and general sunny demeanor. He is particularly loved the little old ladies of the town, many of whom trusted Bernie with their husband’s final … One elderly woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), took Bernie under her wing, making him her travel companion and beneficiary of her will. Their relationship confounded many in town. Marjorie was the town shrew, an unpleasant woman who ran the local bank and refused many townspeople loans in their time of need. Soon, despite Bernie’s calming influence the relationship turned sour. “Basically it was like Bernie was her property,” says Bernie’s old boss. Then the unthinkable happened.
To say any more would ruin one of the pleasures of this movie. Director Richard “School of Rock” Linklater lets the strange docu-drama unfold in a leisurely way, through reenactments and talking heads. Broken into sections—Who Is Bernie? Was it Romantic? Was Bernie Gay?—the film provides an interesting portrait of Bernie and the town of Carthage.
Black hands in a nuanced and subdued performance, and Texas native Matthew McConaughey is a live wire as the local DA, Danny Buck, but it is the talking heads that really bring the story alive.
They are the docu part of this docu-drama. Each of them actually knew Bernie, and were supporters of him, even while he was on trial. Their lively colloquialisms—like “There’s more tattoos than teeth on that jury.”—brighten up the movie, helping to create a fully rounded picture of who Bernie was and why he did this terrible thing.