Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Mathew McConaughey
Plot: Shot in a documentary style, the film tells Bernie’s story in particular the friendship he struck up with the wealthy and recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) who was widely dispised by the other townsfolk, due to her frequently cold and unpleasant nature, with the film especially focusing on the events leading up to Bernie shooting her several times from behind. A crime only made all the more bizarre by the fact that he was so popular with the local townsfolk that despite him openly confessing to her murder, they still rallied to his defence.
Review: For anyone not already convinced that Jack Black is a master of disguise, especially with most associating him with his now trademark classic rock infused whirlwind style of acting, often forgetting that he was also the pilot in “Waterworld”, the lead bad guy in “The Neverending Story 3” or the annoying white Rasta in “I Still Know What You Did Last Summer”, before finally making getting his breakout role in “High Fidelity” which essentially typecast him for every film which followed. Still occasionally he has shown us that he is still more than a one trick pony with films like “King Kong” and “Nacho Libre”, both showcasing different sides to him and one we refreshingly get to see again here, as he adopts a camp southern twang to play small town mortician Bernie Tiede.
A strange tale to say the least but one only made the stranger by the fact that it is a story based on true events, with director Richard Linklater using the 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth who also helped to write the screenplay with Linklater, a director who has always had an affection for oddball characters. An obsession first started with his indie debut “Slacker” and one which has continued throughout his career, with Bernie being truly his kind of character.
Opening with Bernie addressing a class of student morticians through the tricks of his trade, from super gluing eyes shut, to the use of the correct amount of blush, all while highlighting each of these actions with a dash of dark humour as he throws out such great pearls of wisdom like
“We must always be on guard for the mischievous lip drift. Even the slightest hint of teeth can be disastrous. You cannot have grief tragically becoming a comedy.”
It is a scene which perfectly introduces his character and whose instant likability makes it easy to see why he was so popular amongst the townsfolk and this is even before the film moves into the largely talk head filled meat of the film, which highlights many of his good deeds within the community, aswell as the skill he handles his trade with, making the recently deceased sound better in life than they were in death including the town drunk who comes off sounding like a socialite thanks to Bernie. It is this likability which is key to the film working or failing seeing how the film essentially rests on you wanting a self-confessed murderer getting away with it. Thankfully it is something which is effortlessly portrayed by Black, who judging by the credits footage of Black in conversation with the real life Bernie Tiede the similarities between the two are the remarkable, though sadly the footage is shown without sound meaning that we never get to discover who much of a sound-alike he is aswell.
While this is essentially Black’s movie, he still receives strong support from MacLaine who is truly odious with her continuous taunting and gradually increasing mental torture she inflicts on Bernie with her nagging, possessiveness and generally acid tonged putdowns, making it none too hard to root for her demise. Equally on form is Mathew McConaughey as the D.A. Danny Buck Davidson, who’s Rottweiler like obsession with the case, is only made all the more memorable by his performance that manages to skilfully juggle moments of drama and comedy together, especially as he is frequently confounded by the views of the townsfolk who are frequently quick to leap to the defence of Bernie, even though he is openly confessed to murder and making no attempt to rally the townsfolk to his cause.
Linklater making the decision to shoot the film in a documentary style is certainly an interesting, yet certainly effective one, with the talking heads element this provides frequently giving the film many of its more memorable moments as the townsfolks give their thoughts on Bernie and the case, with the southern drawl certainly adding a quaint edge to it, while the fact that many of the townsfolk are playing themselves only continues to add to the already surreal nature of the case. Frustratingly though Linklater never really makes any attempts to understand why they are so devoted to defending him? Is it because of Bernie's charitable nature or is it more down to how he started handing out mrs Nugent's money as risk free loans to them all. Infact the only real counterargument we get to Bernie's list of good deeds is via McConaughey's Danny Buck seeming voice of reason, even though it is one we particularly don't want to listen to even though we know he is ultimately right. Equally frustrating is the lack of real insight into why Bernie is like he is, especially seeing how his acts despite seemingly being money motivated still continue today while he is incarcerated.
For one reason of another this film has only just now made it over to the UK, despite being released stateside last year, though it remains to be seen exactly what sort of wide release the film will get, with my current thoughts being that it will likely be turning up direct to DVD, but it’s still one of the most fascinating performances from Black that I have seen in a while and one which captures this truly unique story.