Movie Review: ‘Bernie’



Davalyn Stepzinski

Offbeat, honest and a little bit unnerving is the best way I can describe “Bernie,” the shocking true story about a small town that fights sending a mortician to prison for murdering an elderly woman.

Excuse me, come again?

Somehow, I missed this plot summary when I heard about the movie. I was more focused on the words of praise I heard for Jack Black’s performance as said mortician. I always enjoy it when comedians take on more serious roles, and I often flock to them. I did know, however, that a murder would take place and that it would involve Black’s character, but I did not realize he was the murderer. Nor did I think it would be quite so difficult to form an opinion about something usually so simple: You commit murder; you go to jail. This film tries to make you rethink that opinion, spending time on the precursors before showing you the murder and bringing you to the trial. It’s that effect that makes a difference here and why this film is so riveting.

Bernie Tiede (Black) is a friendly mortician in Carthage, Texas, with a lot of interests and a lot of charisma. Whether he’s singing in the choir, helping folks pick out their future resting places or directing the local play, he’s charming the town with his genuine wish to help. When he meets miserly Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), he makes it a personal goal to try and make her a happier person. He succeeds, and they become companions for everything from lunch to travel and they are both happy, for a time. Then Nugent begins to control Tiede’s life and he begins to lose his cool. Once the trial comes into the picture, the townspeople begin to talk, as well as the district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), who may just be the only person either really against Tiede or passionate about justice.

This film starts a bit slow, which is what made it difficult for me to classify for a while. It feels like a documentary or a television special a good part of the time, since it is told equally through interviews and action. Some of the interviews are with actual residents of the town that witnessed the case, which actually took place sometime in the ’90s. It’s that sort of detail that makes this feel more real, which in turn makes it harder to believe, if that makes any sense. Waiting for the story to unfold is a bit tedious though, since the movie wants you to not only get a good idea of Tiede’s character, but also fall in love with him. The way Black plays the character makes it an easy task; he’s so convincing and compassionate that it’s hard not to like him. After all, Marjorie Nugent had it coming, being so evil and selfish, didn’t she?

With the honesty that Black shows in Tiede, a part of you is likely to agree with that statement. The other part of you is going to be indignantly stuck to the law, but it’s going to be questioning it.

In the midst of all this, the film is treated as a comedy and there are some great jokes, including a handful of one-liners. One in particular had some of my friends practicing it just out of the theater. Subtle humor is powerful here, but if you’re willing to stay with it, you’ll crack a smile more than a few times.

Nugent is played with all the grouchy and feisty aggression an old woman could have by MacLaine, who is just the right amount of nasty. I’m used to her playing sassy, so this was no stretch, but there’s little about this character to find endearing, if at all, which is the largest difference. McConaughey is almost unrecognizable, appearing incredibly local in his look and talk. He gives the character an interesting feel, as someone we should believe in but not altogether willing to, maybe because he doesn’t seem as intelligent as he thinks he is.

While it is slow and a bit droll at times, it is extremely well made and something worth checking out. The story itself is very interesting and while predictable, it’s more about the people than the ending anyways. Following all of the interviewers to the very end, you have the opportunity to hear everyone’s opinion all the way through. To me, that’s the best part, besides watching Black, who just seems completely natural in this role.

For that reason, I recommend seeing this movie. It’s not the best thing you’ll see this year, but it will make you laugh as well as make you think about the word empathy.

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