Featuring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth
Australian release date: August 16, 2012
In the small rural Texan town of Carthage, affable local mortician, Sunday school teacher, church choir member and all-round sweet-tempered popular guy Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) strikes up an unlikely friendship with wealthy, irascible, reclusive elderly widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Bernie moves in with the widder as full-time companion, and soon finds himself at her beck and call.
Bernie’s first mistake – calling on the widder Nugent after her husband’s funeral
He does his best to attend to her every whim, cooking for her, taking on housekeeping chores, managing her banking and financial affairs, and travelling with her in a role closer to caretaker than companion. Her dependency and demands are endless, but Bernie manages heroically well to contain his frustration. Seemingly, the only task that is beyond him is taking that thar armadillo gun and using it for its intended purpose – he watches helplessly down the barrel unable to pull the trigger as the resident armadillo waddles safely outta sight. The widder flies into a rage, questioning poor Bernie’s manhood in the course of a ferocious tongue lashing that bites hard (Bernie is, indeed, rather effeminate in manner). Ah, the good ol’ Chekhovian gun-in-the-first-act principle…need I say more?
I remember, long long ago in ancient times, cacking myself at the episode of Get Smart featuring Simon The Likeable, a Kaos agent whose deadly weapon is his irresistible likeability. When briefing Agent 99 and Max, Chief shows them a picture of the beatifically smiling, twinkle-eyed killer. Agent 99 gazes doe-eyed at Simon’s image and acknowledges that it is, indeed, hard not to like him. Max leaps in with: “Like him? I LOVE him!”
Bernie Tiede reminds me of Simon The Likeable, except that we’re not talking fictitious characters here. Bernie is part doco, part reconstruction, blending footage of interviews with actual residents of Carthage and a retrospective dramatization of the events that led to the real Bernie Tiede’s incarceration for murder (this ain’t no spoiler; you work out what has happened early in the movie – the dramatic tension lies in the how and why).
Bernie with bloomers
This is a fascinating character study of an unusual and intriguing man set against an equally fascinating small-town Texan cultural backdrop. The combining of the real with the reconstructed is an inspired move on the part of the filmmakers in building a composite portraiture of Bernie Tiede that plays havoc with our moral compass. Who feels sympathy for a bloke who shoots an old lady in cold blood, then continues on as if nothing has happened, spending her money as town benefactor and presenting his usual smiley face to the local folk to whom he has endeared himself? He’d have to be a psychopath, right?
Well, no actually. In fact, the great majority of the townsfolk who are interviewed (there are some real characters among them!) retain their affection for Bernie and remain unshaken in their belief that he has been hard done by and does not deserve to be behind bars for life. Indeed, some of them are adamant that he shouldn’t have been jailed at all, such is their enduring dislike of his victim and overwhelming regard for him!
The widder Nugent – not the most popular gal in town
With the accused charged and the court case approaching, the District Attorney (Matthew McConaughey) fears that justice will not be done if Bernie’s case is heard before an inevitably sympathetic local jury, and has the trial moved to a backwoods town some distance off. In laugh-out-loud hilarious terms, the Carthage locals interviewed express their contempt for the inhabitants of this ‘kissin’ cousins’ territory, reserving their most colourful and extravagantly damning expression for them redneck genetically challenged jury members who sent their beloved Bernie down. Priceless stuff, delivered in trademark southern accents and sprinkled with local colloquialisms to rival Aussie classics like “I’m so hungry I could suck a baby’s bum through a cane chair” and “That grappa’s so strong it could strip the coat off a blue dog at fifty yaaards.” Yep, that good.
“Say what ya like, reverend…there’s somethin’ not right about that Bernie, and I don’t care what ya think about that, y’all.”
Jack Black is wonderful as Bernie. This is surely a career-best performance, one of those rare instances in which there appears to be no separation between actor and character, where the immersion of the actor in his role is so complete as to create the illusion that only the character remains. Shirley MacLaine is also terrific, as is McConaughey in his limited screen time.
In summary: unusual, gripping, damned funny at times, occasionally poignant, subversive in throwing into question fundamental values most of us take for granted, and very, very well made. Highly recommended.
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