Possessive, obsessive, jealous. Quirky, endearing, naïve.
The first three words accurately described Marjorie Nugent, as the other three for Berne Tiede.
Bernie was a dark film mixed with a compelling yet true story. An assistant mortician, who was beloved by the people of a small, east Texas town, was taken in by a rich widow, whom no one liked, and murdered her. That is the basis of it but there is more to it.
Tiede took pride in his work. He wanted every family to have a respectful funeral and to be honest, families appreciate that and he, apparently, did it well. What became Bernie’s downfall was one of his finest qualities; compassion. According to Don Leggett, Bernie cared for bereaving, female widows (DLOL; dear little old ladies) by giving them too much attention. When he met Marge Nugent, Bernie got more than he bargained.
Nugent was not only disliked in the community due to her cold personality but also by her family. As the story went, she had an estranged relationship with her immediate and extended family. She rarely, if ever, talked to her son, who lived in the panhandle around Amarillo, and her sister, who lived in the area. To further the point, her family members sued her for money. That kind of relationship was reptilian cold.
When she met Bernie, however, she saw someone who could be controlled. Perhaps she enjoyed his company and Bernie certainly was not fighting the attention – at first – but predators do not mix with other predators. They need a prey and Nugent’s was Bernie.
That was Richard Linklater’s and Skip Hollandsworth’s perspective and it was what we saw. There was, however, some fairness to the side of Nugent’s family. Danny “Buck” Davidson was hounded by the locals who wanted that sweet Bernie to not go to jail but he held his ground (side note: Is it me or does anyone else notice how McConaughey is casted as someone in law?). To the Nugent’s, Marge was Bernie’s prey and he became accustomed to a certain standard of living and since he was now her benefactor, why not kill her? The jury agreed.
A friend of mine told me about this film and anytime Jack Black is in anything, I have Will Ferrell syndrome. How stupid is it and how many times does he do something unfunny? When I saw Black using his musical talents in a way that benefited the film and he was not over the top stupid, it was breath of fresh air. With Black, overplaying the role is tempting but Linklater knew how to balance it.
Shirley MacLaine had a limited but fantastic role. She did not have a great amount of lines but when present in the scenes, her gravitas radiated. MacLaine is one of the finest actors alive and in her small capacity, she made 85% of the film. Even McConaughey was good. He was able to project how Danny Buck was a “good – ole boy” without patronizing the viewer.
The acting was great but what was most enjoyable was the way Linklater told the story. It was a different and interesting approach to storytelling. To use interview style of “locals” to narrate is almost ingenious. It played to the caricature of Texans but that worked. Not to mention, it was not far off the mark.
Linklater brought in a goofy, over the top actor and tamed him. He put two Oscar winners in supporting roles and made it work. That is great recipe for a good story.