“Bernie” is a curious film. Based on a real murder story, it’s a blend of mockumentary and dark comedy, with Jack Black playing assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, who ingratiated himself with the people of Carthage, East Texas by becoming involved in all sorts of social activities and going the extra mile to make people feel special.
Not only did he go out of his way to make the deceased look just right; he’d also say and do the kind of things to make the grieving relatives feel uplifted—and he had a special affinity for widows. In fact, he made such an impression on one widow in particular, the obscenely wealthy and cantankerous Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), that he became her “companion.” Whatever that means, we’re not quite sure, and neither were the people of Carthage or Nugent’s estranged relatives—the ones she cut out of her will after meeting Bernie.
The story is told in retrospect, the way that neighbors and friends are often shown on the 10 o’clock news in front of the camera saying things like “He was a nice man—kind of soft spoken, but he’d give you the shirt off his back.”
Black reportedly met the real Bernie on a visit to Telford Unit State Prison, where Tiede is serving a life sentence for the 1996 murder of the 81-year-old Nugent, and we can only assume that the visit helped Black get into Tiede’s head and prepare for his role. Black’s performance is remarkably restrained, with him playing Tiede as a complicated mix of extrovert and guarded individual. But nothing creates a sense of authenticity more than director Richard Linklatter’s decision to film actual residents of Carthage—a small town where everyone knows everyone else—talking into the camera about Bernie. Their interview segments are priceless, not only for the perspectives they give, but also because their testimonies reinforce what the film’s opening had to say about East Texas being different from the rest of the state. Their segments provide a rich cultural portrait of a town and a way of life.
Linklatter (“Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunset”) has a true crime story to work with, but the tone isn’t remotely what audiences associate with crime dramas, and neither is the structure. There’s very little tension in the set-up—the depiction of events leading up to the crime. Everything evolves from the title character’s personality. There isn’t an ounce of artificial plot developer to be found in this 104-minute movie, and no heavy-handed manipulation. It’s an inside-out structure that holds our interest, with Bernie’s personality driving the tone and main narrative, and the interviews serving as a counterpoint—and often, a Greek chorus.
Matthew McConaughey plays D.A. Danny “Buck” Davidson, but has comparatively little screen time compared to Black and MacLaine. Linklatter peoples the film with a natural amount of minor characters, but it’s all about Bernie and whoever he comes in contact with.
What could have turned into another “Driving Miss Daisy” is avoided by Linklatter going with a point-of-view narration for most of the film. Just as Bernie is all about being nice on the outside and we’re not sure what on the inside—what he’s thinking, for example, or what his past was like—that model of narration holds when the film progresses to the point where Bernie and Nugent become constant companions. We see it happening, but can’t quite grasp how or why. And that’s when those townspeople interviews typically weigh in, usurping our reactions and reinforcing a suggestion that the viewer has something in common with the townspeople who knew both Tiede and Nugent. Nobody knows exactly what went on.
“Bernie” is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen, “enhanced” for 16×9 monitors and brought to Blu-ray disc via an AVC/MPEG-4 transfer that appears to be flawless. Colors and skin tones are natural looking, and black levels are strong enough to hold detail in what few dark scenes there are in this film. What’s surprising is that “Bernie” was shot using available light throughout much of the film, and there’s a bright and cheery look to it all. Edge delineation is decent, though there’s not much of a sense of 3-dimensionality. Overall, it’s a strong video presentation.
“Bernie” is a quiet, dialogue-driven film with surprisingly little in the way of musical backdrop or effects, and that means it’s an audio soundtrack that’s heavily center track and front main speakers. But the dialogue is clear and free of distortion. The featured audio is an English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 with subtitles in English SDH and Spanish.
In addition to 11 minutes of deleted scenes and the trailer there are three short bonus features. The longest, “The Gossips” (13 min.), delves into Linklatter’s use of real Carthage residents to bolster the mockumentary look and feel. “True Story to Film” (9 min.) traces the genesis to a Skip Hollandsworth story about Tiede and charts the long road to final print. And “Amazing Grace” focuses on Black’s portrayal of Bernie, with the usual blend of clips and talking heads driving it.
“Bernie” is a quiet, leisurely paced indie film that’s as different as can be from the typical true crime movie. But it’s awfully good at what it does, and Black turns in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him yet.