In Home Viewings: "Bernie"

In 1998, an article in Texas Monthly magazine recounting the very odd tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) and Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the elderly widow he murdered in 1996. A beloved member of the community, Bernie had befriended Mrs. Nugent when no one else could (or would) and eventually had become her daily companion despite their gap in age and general phase of life. But as their relationship deepened, Nugent became more and more possessive and abusive of Bernie, a soft spoken funeral director who never could find a way to end their strange little relationship until the day he finally snapped. Despite having a confession on file and a seemingly air tight case, district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) came to fear that the East Texas community would sympathize too much with Bernie, setting the stage for the sort of quirky trial that is only befitting of such a strange story.

Without question, Bernieis one of the weirder films I’ve seen in quite some time. Part re-enactment, part documentary, director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) excels in creating a surreal environment for his film that continually keeps the audience off guard in a very endearing way. Though the story is quite tragic, Bernieis presented as a comedy and as odd as it may seem, that’s exactly the dynamic that this tale needs. Considering the interviews with real townspeople who knew Bernie and Nugent at the time, the tone of the film seems exceedingly appropriate. It’s too weird to be presented as straight drama or tragedy and doing so would have turned Bernieinto a Lifetime Movie of the week that no one (especially me) would pay attention to. In a weird way, by approaching the subject matter from a comedic perspective, Linklater allows for it to be taken seriously while also giving his lead actors a chance to shine.

I’m not sure when the last was that MacLaine did something worthwhile but it’s safe to say it’s been a long time. As such, this is a performance she can be exceedingly proud of as she brings Nugent to life in exquisite detail. MacLaine forces you to both hate and sympathize for Nugent and most importantly, she doesn’t let her character become completely inhuman, a fact that honestly makes Bernie an uncomfortable experience at times. It would be easier to laugh along with the film if MacLaine wasn’t so good at making Nugent a tragic figure of sorts. McConaughey, too, is quite believable and unendingly appealing for the first time in many years. Given the critical acclaim McConaughey has garnered this year, it has become apparent that I may have to retract at least a few of the horrible things I’ve said about him over the years.

The success of Bernie, however, rests solely on the shoulders of Black, who comes through brilliantly with what may very well be the best performance of his career. Very rarely have I thought of Jack Black as a real actor. Almost all of his roles, whether good or bad, come across as Jack Black, not as a character portrayed by Jack Black. “Understated” has never been an adjective one would use to describe Black’s performances but that’s exactly what this is. Maybe for the first time ever, Black puts on the skin of another man and manages to bring him to life in his own right. Bernie has many layers and Black pulls each of them back expertly, providing laughs while still presenting him as a tragic figure. If you’ve seen Nacho Libre, Be Kind Rewind, or Gulliver’s Travels you may, like me, find it hard to believe that Black is capable of genuine acting but this is a fine example of what the man is truly capable of.

Bernie doesn’t always plow forward with the same quirky pace that is starts out with and as such, it does seem to drag a bit. Moreover, it is at times difficult to completely enjoy the comedic aspects given the film’s subject matter. But for what it is, Bernie makes for a quality, seriously off-beat viewing that stands out in terms of true uniqueness.