Contrary to popular belief, movies besides The Avengers have come out in the last two weeks. And if you’re in the mood for more of a creepy romance-murder-comedy, Richard Linklater‘s Bernie is definitely worth your time.
Based on a true story, the movie follows Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a funeral director in Carthage, TX known as the nicest man in town. His unusual friendship with wealthy widow and town terror Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) raises eyebrows especially as Marjorie’s jealousy and possessiveness takes over Bernie’s life.
When Bernie confesses to shooting Marge in the back four times and stuffing her in a freezer, no one in town wants to convict him. According to a recent article in the New York Times by Nugent’s nephew, the story is mostly, amazingly, true.
Of course, many disagree with the sympathetic portrayal of Tiede, villainization of Nugent, and the comedic tone of a movie about murdering an 81-year-old woman, including Nugent’s estranged son.
I’m not normally a big fan of Linklater (Waking Life, Fast Food Nation) or star Jack Black, as both of their work tends to come on a bit strong for my tastes. And this film is no exception in either case, but somehow, it works. This is largely because of the amazing faux “interviews” that fill much of the movie (which is shot documentary-style).
This movie is at its best giving us a taste of small town life, especially in East Texas. An ensemble of talented actors create the residents of Carthage in performances so smooth they could easily be real townspeople (one woman does not speak the entire time, but simply laughs at her foul-mouthed and opinionated friend; another highlight is the diner patron who explains how Texas is like five different states).
Black’s high octane energy pays off for much of the film, as Bernie Tiede is presumed by many in the film to be a closeted homosexual. As a secretly gay and deeply religious man desperate to make others happy, Black’s showy artifice works.
But it leaves us wanting in moments where that cover might be stripped away, like his despair at realizing he’s shot Marge. MacLaine turns in a scene stealing performance, commanding the screen as the icy septigenarian millionaire. Her stone faced cruelty makes her moments of gleeful enjoyment and manic rage all the more affecting.
In spite of myself, I was almost on Bernie’s side by the end. I knew that that was probably the point, and I fought it- but Linklater had convinced me that this was no greedy thief, as the prosecution at the murder trial tries to prove.