Jack Black stars as a super-nice Texan man who takes up with a rich widow twice his age. Everyone in town hates her, and when Bernie shoots her four times in the back, then leaves her body in the freezer and pretends she's still alive for months, everyone thinks she had it coming and no one wants to prosecute sweet old Bernie.
I loves me some social satire and some true crime and some black comedies, so when I found out there's a new film by Richard Linklater about a likable guy from a small town in Texas who got involved with an older woman, then killed her and threw her body in the freezer while going months pretending that she was still alive, I was on that shit. I knew that it featured interviews with real people who knew the protagonists, and it was compared to the Erroll Morris documentary Tabloid, but even so, I underestimated how documentary-like it is, meaning primarily that it lacks a third act and dramatic resolution, so while it's very good and enjoyable and features good performances, one doesn't walk out of it with the sense of movie satisfaction one might from a fully-conceived fictional story.
So we are down in Carthage, Texas, which has been voted the second-nicest small town in Texas. We meet Jack Black as Bernie Tiede teaching a class in "cosmetizing" a corpse. He teaches them to super glue the eyes and mouth shut, trim nose and ear hairs, create a pleasing facial expression, and other things to give their corpse a beautiful appearance at the funeral. We then start our interviews with real townspeople who knew the real Bernie, who talk about what a wonderful person he is and his skill in making corpses look beautiful. We hear about his skill in every aspect of the funeral business, making people at ceremonies feel cared for, redecorating the funeral parlor, and expertly selling more expensive caskets. He is also known and loved by everyone in town and performs in plays and
participates in many civic functions.
So eventually he meets Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. She is a rich old widow and mean old lady. One resident casually remarks "There are people in town who would have shot her for five dollars" and another says "Her nose was so high she'd drown if it rained." Another says "She was not nice. Not nice to a large degree. She was just evil." The droll local manner of speaking is well-represented and one of the pleasures of the movie. In here we find out that Bernie often visited widows after the funerals, and was generally attracted to elderly women. There is also speculation that Bernie may be gay, which is definitely one way to view his character, but we don't get enough to know anything conclusive. Anyway, soon he has gotten through Mrs. Nugent's wall of hostility and she has grown attached to him.
Soon they are traveling together, and he is more and more involved with her. Within two years she has fired all her servants and thus Bernie, by default, becomes her servant. Her tone goes from caring to shrill harangues and constant insults. There is a significant scene where Bernie decides he'll come back when she's not so abusive, and she uses the remote to close the property gate. Essentially, he has become her slave, and her prisoner. One day, as she's walking toward her car, he glances down and sees a rifle. He picks it up and shoots her four times in the back.
SPOILERS > > >
Things just continue, and we realize that Bernie is successfully making it seem that Mrs. Nugent is still alive, just sick. In the meantime he starts using her money to spruce up the town, buy houses for people, buy yard playsets for local girls, and all-round do nice things for the locals. Now we start to have the presence of Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck Davidson, local lawman. Nugent's accountant, who never liked Bernie, forces the search of her property nine months after her disappearance, leading to the discovery of her body in the freezer. Bernie is arrested and instantly confesses. No one in town can believe what happened.
Which means literally: they don't believe it. They simply refuse to believe that Bernie would do such a thing, and if he did, well, she had it coming anyway. It begins to be that Danny Buck is the bad guy for prosecuting such a nice, harmless man, while Buck tries to get them to care about the fact that Bernie is a confessed killer. Buck has to move the trial to a town fifty miles away to get an impartial jury who doesn't know Bernie personally. We get a bit of the trial, Bernie is found guilty, and one's to jail. The end.
< < < SPOILERS END
So while it has several pleasures to recommend it, the fact that it just winds up in a very matter-of-fact way with little narrative shape or larger sense of what it all means can leave one a bit under-enthused at the end. This started as an article in Texas Monthly and it turns out that's pretty much what it is: an article. At the end you realize that this is more a dramatized documentary than a fictional movie, with a satisfying finale, and, well, one could debate on the merits or problems with that, but the reality is it leaves one feeling a trifle disappointed. Most fictionalized true stories have been shaped to give then some sort of satisfying resolution, but not here. Maybe that makes this more honorable, but it also makes it something you don’t REALLY need to see.
Since I wrote that I have read the original article, which you can find here, and there are a few details the movie left out that could have enriched our view of this character. The first is that his mother died when Bernie was 3 and his father when he was 15, which might shed light on his need to belong and attraction for older women. We also learn that he was widely considered “effeminate” and “light in his loafers,” spoke in what was considered an effeminate voice, and most interestingly—very, very interestingly—his home was found to contain 50 videotapes of local men, including one from the sheriff’s department, engaged in “misconduct.”
All that said, Jack Black delivers an excellent performance, making me wish he’d get a bit more attention for this. I had gotten to the point where I’m so sick of his shtick I never wanted to see him again, but here he gives himself so completely to the character you forget that it’s Jack Black and really believe you are watching another person. He also gets ample opportunities to sing and even dance, both of which he handles with aplomb. Because of the documentary-esque style of the film, Maclaine and Maconaghey are good, but barely make an impression.
We’ve come to expect that “true stories” are fictionalized and shaped in ways that give them more of an overall momentum, and I think they should have just gone that route here. I don’t think the rewards the film gets from remaining faithful to fact outweighs the damage it does to its overall impact, and its chances for wider release and attention. It’s fictionalized enough not to be a documentary, but too faithful to be a satisfying story, leaving it as a very interesting dramatized article, but little more than just that: an article.
You could just wait for the video, but Black delivers a wonderful performance.