June 18, 2012 – It may be unorthodox to call a movie about a real life murder delightful and charming, but there really is no other way to describe “Bernie”, the film that tells the story of Bernie Tiede, who was sentenced to life in prison after admitting he murdered Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow, played on screen by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine.
The strangeness of Texas and its colorful cast of characters have been portrayed on the big screen numerous times, but this film is the cream of the crop. Written and directed by Texas native Richard Linklater, of “Dazed and Confused” fame, along with Skip Hollandsworth, the editor of the “Texas Monthly” who wrote an article about the actual murder that was a basis for the script, the story provides an interesting slice of Americana, Texas style. Half of “Bernie” plays out like a traditional movie, while the other half seems like a documentary, as if the viewer is watching an odd version of a “48 Hours” or “20/20”mystery.
In reality and on screen, Nugent was an unpopular widow who growled at people. By the way people in town talked about her you’d think she kicked puppies and was responsible for everything evil in the world. On the other hand, Bernie was a much-loved resident who worked at the local funeral home, sang in the church choir, befriended everyone in town and basically made the sun shine and the stars twinkle in the little hamlet of Carthage in East Texas. Even after Bernie admitted to killing her, the locals stood by him and begged the law go easy. As one resident says, “He only shot her four times. It’s not like he shot her five times or anything like that.”
The actual town’s folk are split on how they feel about the film; some say they hope it’s good for drawing tourists to their small part of the world, while others feel it’s not right to make a comedy about the murder of an 81 year-old woman.
Again, as shocking as that seems, the characters are written with warmth and come across enchanting on screen. While there are reports from some of the town’s people who lived through the actual 1996 murder and its aftermath that there are Hollywood inaccuracies, Nugent’s nephew says the film is an accurate portrayal of what really happened.
Black and MacLaine seem familiar with these roles; they’ve both played similar characters before and have done quite well with them. Enter Matthew McConaughey, who plays the district attorney and the only other person in town out to make Bernie pay for his crime. McConaughey is good enough in the role, but his is a role that anyone can play, and that’s something you definitely can’t say about the other two lead roles.
I will admit this film isn’t anything like I expected, but I liked it … a lot. It won’t appeal to everyone; just like the sleepy little town and its residents, there are some who will find this peculiar story entertaining and fun, and there are others who will believe it’s just plain wrong.
However, based on the originality of the script and in-depth performances, I can honestly say “Bernie” is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.