The West

Movie Review: Bernie
Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in Bernie. Picture: Madman.

Jack Black seems the most unlikely actor in Hollywood to play the role of a murderer. Lovable, funny, eager to please - all qualities not exactly associated with someone who slays his girlfriend in broad daylight, right? Wrong.

German-Texan Bernie Tiede ticked all those boxes when, on November 19, 1996, armed with a rifle, he walked into the garage of the home he shared with his elderly partner and shot her four times in the back.

In fact, so well respected was the 38-year-old funeral director and mortician that when he pleaded guilty in August, 1997 to murdering 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent and storing her body in a deep freezer for nine months, residents of the sleepy town of Carthage jumped to his defence.

It's easy to see then why director Richard Linklater cast someone like Black for the title role in this tragicomedy.

There's nothing funny, of course, about murder. But choosing a man who has garnered a massive fan base for his roles in romantic comedies such as Shallow Hal and The Holiday was a smart move on Linklater's part as it enables Black to win over the audience in the same way the character he plays did the community of Carthage.

Black delivers what is arguably the best performance of his career as the meticulously-dressed Bernie, who we first meet while he is embalming a body for a funeral with similar fastidious attention to detail.

He is, we are told through mock to-camera interviews with local residents, "just about the most popular man in Carthage", "someone who makes you feel real good about yourself."

Indeed, that's certainly how Marjorie feels when Bernie turns up at her door armed with flowers and offers of support after the death of her husband.

While the residents of Carthage have no time for the cantankerous widow (played superbly by film legend Shirley MacLaine) - "She pulled the heads off my dolls," laments one - Bernie is more sympathetic. "Well there is some goodness in there too," he responds.

Flattered by the attention, Marjorie returns his affections and the pair become inseparable as they travel the world and share the finer things in life. However, it doesn't take long for Marjorie to show her true colours and as she becomes more demanding, condescending and abusive, Bernie retreats into himself, the one-time socialite transforming into practically a recluse.

Things get particularly ugly when Marjorie suspects Bernie of embezzelling her funds, leading him to take drastic measures.

However, good old Bernie, always thinking of others, uses the money left in his late partner's account for the greater good, channelling it into philanthropic projects in the local community.

His cover is blown when Marjorie's stockbroker, concerned by her absence, calls for a police search of the house, resulting in the discovery of her body and Bernie being charged with first-degree murder by district attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey).

Linklater co-wrote the script for Bernie with Skip Hollandsworth - author of an article about the case that appeared in a 1998 edition of Texas Monthly - and it's testament to his copious hours of research that, while initially suspicious of an outsider making a comedic movie about a painful chapter of their town's history, most Carthage residents have responded positively to the film. Indeed, some even appear in the vox pop, seemingly to show their support for a man now serving time in a Texas prison.

"There are people in town that would have shot her for five dollars," says one resident to camera.

That it has received strong reviews is also thanks to the stellar performances of the three leading stars. Black delivers a subtle and intelligent turn as a man so eager to please he bottles up his humiliation until he can hold it in no longer, while MacLaine delivers her dry one-liners with a suitably acerbic tongue.

McConaughey, too, is superb in the role of the district-attorney, the only man, it would seem, who had his suspicions about Bernie. "It's like he cast a spell over the entire area," his character says.

The film's main strength, however, lies in the fact that, while funny in parts, it is never in bad taste, simply serving to remind us that sometimes fact really is stranger than fiction.

The West Australian

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