Movie Review: “Bernie”—Morbid in Show

Written by Brent Holmes August 08, 2012

This review and the attached trailer contain spoilers.

 

“Bernie” is a fascinating film that blurs the line between documentary and mockumentary, comedy and tragedy, and reality and fiction. The film follows the true story of Bernhardt Tiede, who murdered Marjorie Nugent in 1996. Jack Black stars as the title character, Bernie Tiede, a good-hearted mortician, who becomes involved with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a vicious, wealthy widow.

Using the same mockumentary style as films such as “Best in Show” or “Waiting for Guffman” acclaimed director Richard Linklater turns the comedy of “Bernie” sideways by using actual people from the town of Carthage, Texas  who provide interview material for the film. The result is a subtly dark and strange film that is fun to watch, but also more subtle in its comedy—it is not laugh out loud funny, “Bernie” comedy comes from its black comedy angle and the shock of how it was made.

Jack Black provides his first good performance in a film since “School of Rock” (also directed by Linklater), his portrayal of Tiede has a great deal of depth. Shirley MacLaine is interesting as Marjorie, but is basically just an ornery old lady. Matthew MacConaughey’s portrayal of the District Attorney prosecuting Bernie is silly, but also functions as a moral compass that doesn’t seem to always know which way is North.

“Bernie” suffers from a muddled portrayal of the people of Carthage, on one hand, the townspeople are funny in their out of touch views of reality and the way they jump to defend Bernie’s actions. On the other, Linklater doesn’t provide any real angle for the audience to view these townspeople; are they supposed to be funny, tragic, repulsive, or empathetic? In a way, they are all of these things, and that makes the film work surprisingly well.

Linklater shies away from making Tiede a mixed character. While Black’s performance is compelling, Bernie Tiede seems to be exactly as the townspeople describe him. The film would have been stronger for more explicit inconsistencies. At times, it seems to be pulling its punches, which is ironic considering the presentation of its subject matter.

“Bernie” is undoubtedly an interesting exercise in blurring the lines between fact and fiction. Final images showing the real-life Tiede sitting with Jack Black are a good illustration of the point. Linklater is, as the film describes “Bernie”, “an artist in the embalming room.” His direction finds a strange, uncomfortable spot between hilarious biting social criticism and the grim fact that these are actual people, dealing with an actual murder. This is a film that needs to be discussed, debated, and watched.

My Rating: 9/10 

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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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