Bernie -- Movie review


Directed by Richard Linklater


See the movie first.  This is a revealing discussion and is intended for those who have already seen the film. 

This is a well made, well acted story about a murder in the East Texas town of Carthage.  It is based on a true story about a man who moves into the town taking work as an assistant funeral director.  He befriends an older widow and ends up shooting her four times in the back with a rifle in her own garage.  "Based on" is the key phrase.  The movie presents a very coherent, seemingly plausible interpretation of the characters and events, but I just don't buy it.   What is most convincing and plausible is the character of Mrs. Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Mac Claine), a hateful, mean-spirited, vulnerable, pathologically needy, elderly woman, who is very wealthy and universally disliked even by her own family.  Plausible, but somewhat less convincing, is the character of the prosecutor, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), a vicious, vindictive, merciless prosecutor.  Least convincing, and the more I think about it, less and less so, is the character of Bernie Teide (Jack Black), the leading figure who commits the murder.  The movie would have us believe that Bernie Teide is the next thing to a saint.  He is multi-talented and highly accomplished; he is generous, caring, and kind; he is fervently dedicated to God and community;  he is a benefactor to many local businesses, community organizations, and individuals.  But he had one fault, one misstep.  He killed this spiteful old woman in a moment of extreme weakness and distress -- a forgivable failing in the eyes of most residents of the town.   But my opinion is that Bernie Teide is a con artist of the highest caliber.  He is the master of the mask and of ingratiation.  The movie's portrayal of him does not ring true.  It did not look deeply enough at him, just as the people of Carthage who were benefiting from his largesse were not looking closely at him either.  There is nothing in the film about his background.  He came to the town as an outsider (he was hired by the funeral director over the phone without meeting), but quickly curried favor with everyone he came in contact with.  The film portrays him as being highly accomplished in skills related to the arts: cosmetics, embalming, acting, singing, directing, food preparation, etc., and the casting of a multi-talented, well-trained, top level performer like Jack Black to play Bernie makes this aspect of his character seem very impressive and convincing.  I suspect, though, that Jack Black is a much more polished artist and performer than Bernie ever was, so one has to keep in mind that one is watching Jack Black and not Bernie Teide.   I wonder how adept Bernie really was in any of those crafts.  He was clearly very smart and a quick study.  Bernie was a guy who knew how to wing it and fill in the gaps later.  And he was playing to an audience of simple people in a small town.  Lloyd Hornbuckle (Richard Robichaux), Mrs. Nugents stockbroker, and prosecutor Danny Buck were his only critics, but they were implacable.  If it hadn't been for them, he would have gotten away with it.  I wouldn't be surprised if he had scoped out Mrs. Nugent even before he applied for the job at the funeral home, and that the whole project of moving to Carthage, taking the job at the funeral home, and becoming the popular man about town was a very well planned enterprise with Mrs. Nugent as the ultimate target.   No one ever asked how it was that he  decided to come to Carthage.  The film would have us believe that Bernie Teide did not have a darker side.  He just slipped up one time in an otherwise exemplary life.  This is what does not make sense.   Shooting an old woman four times in the back with a rifle and stuffing her body in a freezer to hide it has to have some antecedents.  Beneath all the kindness and generosity, Bernie Teide was a man full of rage.  Mrs. Nugent happened to be exactly the kind of person to elicit it from him and bring it to an explosive cataclysm.  It is an extremely tragic, dark story, which the film treats rather superficially and lightly.  I feel bamboozled, cheated.  I feel like I've been served up a very appealing, but misleading, incomplete version of this incident.  This film has taken a tragic story of exploitation, deceit, rage, and murder and made light entertainment out of it.  I suppose it is within the legitimate purview of art to do that, but one has to keep in mind that this is fiction.  Fiction without conviction.