Often movie reviews can be difficult, especially if they’re somehow a more controversial film. What people watch, how they watch, and the way they come away feeling are all so relative that it can be very hard to know how to explain your view of a movie, when you know many other people view it differently. So many times, it’s simply a matter of perspective. If you happen to have a different perspective than mine, I understand and respect that, but as I’ve said in the past, I can only share my perspective.
The most important thing to know about Bernie going in, is that it is based on a true story. As such, if you want to get into a discussion about it, you have to draw from reality, as well as the screen presentation of the story. But let’s start with the film.
Here’s the summary as explained by Google:
Assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is one of the most-beloved residents in the small Texas town of Carthage. Sunday-school teacher, choir member and creator of spectacular funerals, Bernie is a friend to everyone, including Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a rich but nasty widow whom no one else likes. When Marjorie is found shot to death and stuffed in a freezer, Bernie is charged with the murder, and concerned Carthage citizens immediately spring to his defense.
Now let me just say up front, this is not a mystery at all. It is made perfectly clear that Bernie is indeed guilty. That is not in question at all. What is in question is whether he was semi-justified in his action, a premise that makes me laugh and despair at the same time. Unless it’s in self-defense at threat of danger, or in defense of another for the same reason is it ever justified to murder someone? Let alone the murder of an unarmed 81 year old woman by a 38 year old? And even if you don’t believe he was justified, the movie clearly aims (and for most people succeeds) at making you feel sorry for Bernie and feel that maybe he could still be a good person, a Christian even, who simply did a bad thing…rather like David with Bathsheba and Uriah.
I’d be the first person to say, “OF COURSE a Christian can sin, even egregiously, and still be a Christian.” But a film adaptation was not nearly enough to make me take Bernie Tiede at face value. A decision that proved wise when I looked deeper into reality and found much more than what the film let on. You read a few newspaper articles and find that Bernie really was a closeted homosexual, something that was glossed over in the film. You also find that the filmmaker Linklater was hoping to bring more sympathetic attention to Tiede’s case.
And it worked. After the film was released, a new defense attorney looked at his case, one thing led to another and Tiede’s sentence was reduced to time served. And when he was released on bail, he moved in with Linklater. Call me crazy, but it might seem like Linklater wasn’t exactly objective. Again, his guilt or innocence is not in question. He confessed. I don’t particularly want to get into the details of why his sentence was reduced here, but at the end of this review I’ll include links to two articles I found helpful in understanding this movie and story a bit better.
The film is done almost in a docu-drama style - "mock-umentary" I believe it's called. Large portions of the story are acted out normally, but interspersed throughout are “interviews” with members of the community, concerning Bernie, Marjorie, and all the happenings. This style wouldn’t normally appeal to me, but they captured the attitude and spirit of a small rural town so perfectly, that it was positively hilarious. Oh, did I mention that? This entire movie, dealing with the brutal murder of a widow is a comedy. I have to say, they pulled off the dark comedy perfectly, if you like that kind of thing. I do. The interviews with all the little old ladies and the codger-ly farmers were hysterical, or at least they are when you’ve spent time in towns like that.
But as funny as it was, I did not all appreciate the purpose and slant of this film. It was clearly biased to make you excuse Bernie’s actions, and to make you take him as a wonderful, sweet, Christian man, active in his town, and beloved by all. On top of that, Christianity is very subtly mocked in this film. Not openly or insultingly. More like a kind of condescending big-brother type of mockery. They poke fun at the Christianity in the town, and in such a manner that it really is funny, rather than offensive. Which almost annoys me more than if it had been an open assault.
Bernie is a very interesting film, and absolutely guaranteed to spark conversations, even debates afterward. But before you get into arguments over it, look into the true story, and you’ll be armed to separate fact from fiction – a completely necessary task for this film. It is quite funny, and generally pretty enjoyable to watch. Jack Black is as spectacular as always in the title role, but almost equally hilarious was Matthew McConaughey as prosecutor Danny Buck. But it is not in any way a family film. Depending on your family’s watching habits older children could probably enjoy it. Be warned that there is discussion of whether Bernie is homosexual, a few other innuendoes, and two or three strong profanities.
And after watching it, if you’re interested in understanding what really happened, what’s true and what's not, I found these two articles very helpful in understanding it, both for myself and for discussing it with others:
At the same time, it may be fun just to write off any discussions or analyzing and simply take it at face value - a snarky dark comedy, in which case, it really is quite satisfying.
Have any of you seen this? Think you’re interested? Comment below!