Based on real-life events in Carthage, Texas, “Bernie” showcases Jack Black’s uncanny powers of observation, and director Richard Linklater’s ability to lay on the cynicism so thick you hardly notice it. Black visited with the title character, Bernie Tiede, in prison to study his mannerisms, speech and personality — and effectively became Bernie, albeit looking like the Jack Black we all know so well. If the real Tiede ever entertained thoughts of being immortalized, Black’s depiction must come incredibly (and perhaps uncomfortably) close. At the same time, Linklater and Black work at creating a small niche of darkness, or just a hint of malice, lurking in Bernie’s otherwise absolutely sunny disposition.
Bernie (Black) was Carthage’s most popular mortician and funeral director, though his official position was that of “assistant” undertaker. Bernie could talk the talk of expensive caskets and floral arrangements, spruce up the deceased so they looked better dead, and console their widows, otherwise known as the DLOL (Dear Little Old Ladies). Bernie also had a hand in local theater productions, coached kids’ baseball and was generally so loved that though single, he never had to eat a meal by himself. Then the richest man in town kicked the bucket and it was Bernie’s duty to make sure grieving widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine) didn’t lack for sympathetic companionship.
The catch; Marjorie was mean, bullying and spiteful. Initially frosty to Bernie’s tender ministrations, she quicky latched onto him with the claws of a starving lioness. At the time, Bernie was in his late 30s while Marjorie was in her late 70s. Nevertheless, she queened over him and took him on trips and cruises, demanded that he come over every day and harassed him with calls when he didn’t show up. “She wouldn’t let me have friends” weeps Bernie at one point. “But I’m a people person, I need my friends!” The queen/slave relationship went on for years until one afternoon, Bernie aimed a shotgun at her just as they were going to lunch.
District attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) feared that a tsunami of sentimental public opinion would spoil the subsequent trial, and took it to a hick town far from Carthage. No one in the jury knew Bernie — all they could see was that he had full access to the home, personal savings and property of a very rich woman, and he had been caught with his hand deep in the till. McConaughey delivers one of the best performances of his career as Danny struts his Texas masculinity (complete with cowboy hat, feet up on the desk, toothpick wedged in between his teeth) and ponders in a southern drawl over Bernie’s sexual orientation. (“He’s not a real man … is he?”) Bernie couldn’t have been sleeping with Marjorie, and besides, all his lady friends were over 65, and eligible for a burial package.
Fastidious, fussy and curiously asexual, Bernie was “like an old woman himself.” Very rarely, he displays a glint in his eye, like a warning sign that he’s not to be pushed too far. And you see the flash of fear on Marjorie’s face — fleeting but real. “Bernie” is the tale of a crime of passion, going beyond mere sex and jealousy to probe at something mysterious and infinitely sinister.