DVD Review: Bernie’s story on film feels odd but engaging

Bernie
Rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language

The lines between comedic drama and documentary seem a little blurred in Bernie.

At least, that’s true until we adjust to writer-director Richard Linklater’s unusual approach. Local “interviews” (mostly scripted with co-writer Skip Hollandsworth) are used throughout to narrate this tale of money, murder and eccentricity in small-town East Texas.

Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, who in the late 1980s arrives in Carthage (population under 7,000) with a sweet smile and a degree in mortuary science. Hired as an assistant funeral director, in almost no time he becomes one of Carthage’s most adored citizens, giving all the funeral home’s bereaved clients the same high level of Southern care, compassion and hospitality.

That includes newly widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the richest woman in town but also the meanest, say the narrators. Bernie’s kindness—displayed with flowers and sympathetic visits for weeks after the funeral—wears down even her stubborn resistance.

The friendship changes things for Bernie, too. There’s no romance involved; the other characters (and the script) assume he’s gay, though he’s so affable that even the most conservative Carthaginians never see it as an issue. But eventually he quits the funeral home for a higher-paying gig as Mrs. Nugent’s business manager/daily companion, and for a while they seem as happy together “as two peas in a pod.”

The two take trips around the world, and Mrs. Nugent breaks her anti-social behavior enough to attend weekly services at First United Methodist in Carthage, where Bernie’s a devoted lay leader, Sunday school teacher and choir soloist. And for the first time, Bernie—who lost both parents as a child and had always struggled to make ends meet—is enjoying a little luxury in his life.

Trouble is, unbeknownst to Mrs. Nugent, he’s also using her money to bless others. From her bank accounts, he buys cars and homes for people in need, funds college scholarships for low-income students and pledges $100,000 to the church’s new building campaign.

Whether Mrs. Nugent learns about this and considers legal action is never clear to us. Perhaps her increasing demand for Bernie’s time and attention simply drives him over the edge. Whatever the case, on Nov. 19, 1996, he shoots her four times in the back with a .22 rifle. It’s several months before the body is found, and Bernie confesses and is brought to trial.

Jack Black plays an East Texas funeral director convicted of murder in the dark, fact-based comedy Bernie. The movie received a limited theatrical release and comes to DVD and Blu-ray on Aug. 21. PHOTO COURTESY MILLENNIUM ENTERTAINMENT

From there the movie’s humorous side takes over completely, as an aggressive district attorney (Matthew McConaughey) prosecutes the case—against the will of townsfolk who love Bernie so much, they can’t believe he didn’t have good reason for killing the widely unloved Mrs. Nugent. (At least that’s the impression given by the on-screen “interviewees” in a barrage of funny, if sometimes mildly insulting, colloquial zingers.)

The movie falls short as a character study, and maybe that’s inevitable. Bernie himself told police he murdered Mrs. Nugent because she had become “very hateful and very possessive.” Of necessity, though, the script and the 1998 Texas Monthly article that inspired it don’t shed any light on Bernie’s own excesses (for instance, why he feels driven to be a community Robin Hood) because, it seems, Bernie never talked about it.

So we’re left with some fine performances—a true change-of-pace turn for Mr. Black and a fearless late-career move by Ms. MacLaine—and a big enigma at the center of it all. But still, Bernie is unique and a darkly entertaining ride.

bfentum@umr.org

E.B. Beasley

The pastor weighs in

The Rev. E.B. Beasley had served as pastor for just three weeks at First UMC of Carthage, Texas, when Bernie Tiede was arrested in 1997. Today, he’s pastor of First UMC of Humble, Texas.

While Dr. Beasley doesn’t fault the film’s dark humor, he’d like people to know another side of the story.

“For me, the real story was how the church struggled so hard and so faithfully with how to be the church in the midst of this tragedy,” he said.

The film features words from Dr. Beasley’s sermon shortly after the arrest, entitled “When Life Doesn’t Make Sense,” in which Dr. Beasley asked the congregation to pray for Bernie Tiede. However, the same sermon also called for prayers for the family of Marjorie Nugent as well as the congregation and the entire community—which wasn’t shown.

“Bernie’s sin hurt many people who had no part in his choices,” Dr. Beasley said. “I will forever be proud of the people of that church and their willingness to take the hard (and faithful) road during those days.”

—Mary Jacobs

 

 

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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