Bernie is based on the true events involving the murder of a wealthy elderly woman by a charming mortician in Texas.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is a mortician’s assistant that moves to Carthage, Texas from Louisiana and quickly charms the town with his kind nature. He befriends a wealthy widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), after the death of her husband. Marjorie is almost universally disliked in town, but she and Bernie almost become inseparable. As Marjorie becomes increasingly possessive over Bernie, he winds up shooting her and hiding her body in a freezer, while lying to the townspeople that Marjorie was simply away. When Nugent’s stock broker and family continue pressing, the truth is revealed, but Bernie has wooed the town to the point where no one seems to fault him for the murder.
One pet peeve that I have about movies that are supposedly “based on true events” is they are written so that everything falls neatly into place and the believability is usually stripped down. While Bernie does fall into this trap a bit, what makes the film different is the use interviews with actual townsfolk as well as actors. The bulk of Bernie essentially becomes a dramatized reenactment, sort of like Rescue 911, and the interviews help progress the story and also give insight to the events being reenacted. On paper, it sounds weird and maybe even disjointed, but in action I found it to work quite well.
One thing that works surprisingly wel in Bernie is Jack Black as the titular character. I’m always cautious when comedic actors take on dramatic roles but I am usually surprised by their performances (e.g. Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Black is actually remarkable and restrained here and I am having a hard time imagining anyone else in the role. The Carthage residents interviewed are also professional sounding and without knowing where the actors start and the non-actors begin, it would be easy to confuse some of them as characters rather than real people. One fault of Bernie may actually be that the real people are almost too goofy considering the film is about a murder, but I was never bothered by it.
We are meant to like Bernie just as Carthage did and we can form our own opinions of the depth of Bernie’s guilt. The amount of good that a man does isn’t necessarily wiped out just because he was pushed past his breaking point, but that is usually how the justice system works. The town of Carthage wanted to side with Bernie and by the end of the film, Bernie, and so did I.
I give it 4 real life Bernie Tiedes out of 5.