director Richard Linklater
Bernie is a black comedy about a true life crime in a small town in Texas. Besides watching movies, I am a bit of an addict for true crime television, and so, perhaps unlike many, I was familiar with the story of Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede and the murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent. In fact, I’ve probably seen at least three different shows that covered the story with various slants. As the story has some particular qualities of uncommonness, it’s not too surprising that it got made into a film.
That Richard Linklater, he of Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Waking Life (2001), and School of Rock (2003), to name a few, should make the film is not surprising. Linklater is at times an interesting director and at times a kind of Hollywood hack. But the one consistent theme throughout his personal works and his more commercial ones is Texas and the odd, broad-ranging pictorial that he paints about the state, as a native.
Bernie is most like his true crime film, The Newton Boys (1998), a film about a real-life 1920’s Texas gang in which he mixed a bit of non-fiction to his fictional retelling of the story. In Bernie he mixes interviews with real people among fictive interviews, using the verity to flavor his film.
The story of Nugent’s murder is complicated. Bernie was a funeral director who was well-liked in the community, despite the fact that he was gay (this is small-town Texas, you know). He was kind and generous, active in the community, but he was also a bit of a con-man and ultimately a murderer. He attached himself to Nugent, a woman who was mostly despised in the community, after her husband’s funeral, and took up with her, traveling, spending her money, and possibly even romantic with her. But then he killed her, four shotgun blasts to the back. Hid her body in a freezer and went right along, pretending she was still alive. Until he was caught.
Linklater’s Bernie, played by Jack Black, depicts him as a kind, generous man who ultimately cannot stand the trials and viciousness of the old lady Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and shoots her only when he can’t take it anymore. He uses her money in charitable ways, not only on himself, giving handily to the community, and well-loved among them.
There is some truth to this. When he was caught, many in the community continued to like him and still hated her.
But leaning one way in this story sort of shifts away from the other side. He did kill her. He did steal her money. And depending on which version of the story you hear, the whole thing didn’t evolve from acts of kindness but opportunism and exploitation. In reality, it’s a mixture of many things, no doubt. Which is why it’s been such a popular story to depict in so many venues.
I think what turned me off of this film was mainly Matthew McConaughey, who plays the DA who prosecutes Bernie. He’s slick and trite and a bit dumb and can only see the villain in Bernie. Which sort of underscores the film’s placement in siding with him. It’s not political outrage that annoyed me, in portraying a criminal as a decent fellow, but rather the squandering of the dichotomies of the real story for a more glib version of the tale.