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.
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.
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.