Though billed as a dark comedy, ultimately there’s very little funny about Bernie, a docudrama directed by Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Me and Orson Welles) and based on a true story about a mortician and funeral parlor director, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who weasels his way into the affections of a wealthy widow, Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), then murders her. Not that I didn’t chuckle a few times. It was hard not to, given the magnitude of the lie that was concealed behind the complacent smirk of the protagonist, masterfully played by Black, as he portrayed himself as a paragon of charity, spreading God’s word and working as a community volunteer in the small town of Carthage, Texas. The film, which is structured as a series of flashback interviews rather than as a traditional narrative, unfolds with sobering realism yet seems strangely surreal. That’s no mean trick.
That surrealism isn’t in the story itself; there are lots of real-life examples of a smarmy younger man who bumps off an old bag for money. No, what makes Bernie seem like Enquirer-worthy fiction is the stupidity of his friends and neighbors. Can anyone be this gullible? They refuse to believe he’s a snaky turd even after they learn that he shot her in the back four times. And stored her corpse in a freezer for nine months beneath heaps of corn and steak. And squandered $600, 000 of her money. OK, so he had a history of helping out with locally staged dramatic productions and giving to charities. Big deal. The important point is that no one stopped to ask several painfully obvious questions about this case. Can charitable actions be a front to mask deceit? What could be the possible motive of a man in the prime of his life who slays a crone who was entrusted to his care and who stood to inherit her vast fortune upon her death? Who but a complete psychopath, having committed such an act, could live with this knowledge for nine months and go about his day-to-day activities as if nothing happened?
All the townspeople of Carthage, Texas, see, even when the truth smacks them in the face, is that Bernie was saintly and Marge was a curmudgeon. Simple as that. The murderer is fondly remembered; the wicked witch of the Midwest, forgotten. Ironically, Mr. Linklater himself seems to have bought into all this nonsense; he signed a petition on behalf of the real Bernie Tiede, arguing that he’s misunderstood and should be viewed as a good guy who made a terrible mistake. Sorry, Rich, but you’ve joined the crowd of lone-star-state hicks who’ve been taken. Whatever the directorial intentions may have been, however, the overall effect is not lost. We owe it all to Black’s splendidly wry interpretation. The film’s humor becomes manifest in the smirk we sport at realizing what kind of a cold-blooded operator Tiede really was—and it wasn’t far from BTK or Gacy.
Joe’s Grade: B+