Movie review: Bernie directed by Richard Linklater

Directed By: Richard Linklater
Written By: Richard Linklater

Genre: Criminal comedy ? 

Release date: 2012
Bernie:Jack Black
Danny Buck: Mathew McConaughey
Marjoire Nugent: Shirley McLaine


In the tiny, rural town of Carthage, TX, Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral home director, was one of the most beloved residents, the backbone of the whole little community. He taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and was always willing to lend a helping hand. Apart from that Bernie was a perfectionist in every element of his life, a devoutly religious, tightly-wound man of impeccable manners. Everyone loved and appreciated him, especially elderly widows and widowers he used to visit and comfort after funerals. Although he wasn’t paid for doing so he simply thought it was the right thing to do, he could do it so he did it, no strings attached. But the Devil never sleeps and you are never completely safe, especially from your own little urges. Or so say the Scriptures.

It came as no surprise that Bernie befriended Marjorie Nugent, an affluent widow and a woman well known for her sour attitude towards pretty much everybody. It was a surprise, though, that soon enough those two so very different people became inseparable. Marjorie simply didn’t want to let Bernie go. The poor man moved in with her, as she owed a big mansion and her family didn’t want to share it with such a hag. They frequently traveled abroad, to Europe and to Egypt, always first class; after some time Bernie even started to manage her financial affairs. Marjorie made it worthwhile for him and she quickly became fully dependent on Bernie and his generosity. Still her demands were increasing almost as fast. One day Marjorie disappeared. Bernie continued to handle her affairs, claiming that she had a stroke and was recovering in one of sanatoriums. After nine months the people of Carthage were shocked when it was reported that Marjorie Nugent had been dead, and Bernie Tiede was being charged with the murder. 
My impressions:

‘Bernie” is a pleasant little movie about an ‘accidental’ murderer. Based on a 1998 magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth (who co-wrote the screenplay with Linklater) and peppered with interview snippets from real people who knew Bernie Tiede, the film often plays like a dramatised documentary about a man who should have gotten away with murder but, unfortunately, didn’t. Yes, unfortunately – you read it right. Watching this amazing, true tale unfold is in fact one of the great joys of this flick. Let me just tell you that rarely on film you are able to get a portrait of  a community captured so wholeheartedly. While there are a multitude of ‘redneck’ moments that make you laugh, these people are also capable of breathtaking kindness – Linklater obviously has a huge amount of sympathy for his subjects.

Jack Black is phenomenal in the titular role. He delivers a lovable, highly nuanced portrayal of a man who is hard not to feel sympathy for, even if it does grind against your conscience after a while. He makes Bernie a sweet, kind man who believes in God, welcomes Jesus as his personal saviour and just wants to make life better for everyone around him. But, unfortunately, Satan is always lurking at the corner so (spoiler, highlight to read) one day Bernie shots his patroness, the cruel, selfish Marjorie, in the back four times in a fit of powerless rage. No, he is not one of these types who plan a murder with cold blood and execute it flawlessly. In the end Bernie is as shocked at his own behavior as everyone else. He also tries to ‘atone’ for his sin, givng away a lot of Marjorie’s money while (another juicy spoiler, you know how to proceed) keeping her body in a freezer which proves that either he wasn’t such a good Christian he pretended to be or he didn’t understand a word from his Bible.

MacLaine, meanwhile, is a coiled ball of bad vibes as Nugent, and yet she exudes small traces of humanity beneath her stern veneer that hints at loss and loneliness. Watching her treat Bernie as if he was her personal slave you might start wondering why that man tolerated it so long but the director provides an easy and believable explanation – loneliness, once again (Bernie doesn’t have a family of his own which is a bit surprising when you come to think about it) and a golden collar. After a while even such a man like him (or maybe especially a man like him, with plenty of inhibited urges hidden behind a pleasant front) can’t imagine a life without a small private plane or ski jet, a fleet of cars and a pampered treatment at different luxurious resorts. The riches become his hangman’s noose which he puts around his sturdy neck very willingly, trading money for more approval and more recognition that he craved so much and more comfort. Every good man deserves some degree of comfort, right?

Observing the whole process was a joy and also a great argument against greed delivered without giving heavy-handed sermons.

Final verdict

“Bernie’ isn’t a monumental or a scenic film, but it is a finely tuned character study with some nice innovations. Personally I liked it very much. I suppose the key to the Linklater’s success with Bernie,  isn’t only the director’s empathy for each and every character involved in this story, but also his willingness to present them as honestly as possible, flaws and all, without any judgmental commentary.

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6 Responses to Movie review: Bernie directed by Richard Linklater

  1. Blodeuedd says:

    I liked it, but it was…strange

  2. It was 'real life' strange. I can accept that. 🙂

  3. rameau says:

    I must see this now.

  4. 😀 I think you might like it!

  5. heidenkind says:

    This sounds exactly like the type of movie I would enjoy!

  6. 😀 I recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

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