Turns of phrase like “the role they were born to play” or “no actor could do it better” invariably sound a little twee, but by god they apply to Jack Black’s breathtakingly good performance in Bernie. Playing a Texan mortician in Richard Linklater’s 2011 film seems like the role Black’s entire career had been building towards, offering the actor, singer and comedian a semi-musical acting part that’s both boisterously loud and irresistibly sweet.
Bernie, which I haven’t stopped thinking about or periodically rewatching since it arrived more than decade ago, is a true crime comedy– an uncommon combination, given that true crime hardly screams “hilarity”. But there’s a strange brilliance in this shrewd and emotionally affecting production, for my money among the finest comedy films of the 21st century to date. At its core is an idea that seems rather perverse when distilled into a few words: what if a convicted killer, who really did do it, is actually a swell, big-hearted bloke?
The film begins with Black’s real-life character, Bernie Tiede, totally in his element: lovingly preparing corpses while addressing a class of mortuary students. He removes nasal, ear and facial hair, then conceals the dead man’s teeth, explaining that visible chompers can create unintentional humour – and “you cannot have grief tragically become a comedy.”
What are we to make of the film itself in those terms: the relationship between tragedy, grief and humour? It’s complicated. Tiede is a real man who committed a crime– as this is both a historical fact and tied to the film’s premise, it is hard to avoid spoilers. But knowing what happened going in – as I did – only heightens the satire of Linklater and Black’s portrayal of a fabulously nice and kind murderer.
In 1996, Tiede shot dead 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent and stuffed her body into a freezer, where it was found nine months later. He then spent large amounts of her money, mostly on charities and civic activities. Nugent is brilliantly portrayed in the film by Shirley MacLaine as a crusty old bag who makes Ebenezer Scrooge seem magnanimous: a performance so good, so bitterly unlikeable, I imagine the great actor sucking the juice out of a lemon before the cameras rolled. The pair’s oddest-of-odd-couple friendship has a “sugar mumma” vibe about it, Bernie befriending the wealthy and widely loathed Nugent, becoming the heir to her estate, and traveling the world with her in the lap of luxury.
Linklater frames the film as a campfire conversation about their relationship, regularly cutting to the townspeople of Carthage – mostly actors, but some playing themselves – who narrativise the couple’s lives, arranging the story to suit their biases, preconceptions and unashamedly pro-Bernie stance. The consensus is that a sweet, decent, giving man one day lost control, regretfully – but not unforgivably – shooting dead a crotchety miser who lived a life of meanness.
Out to nab Bernie, and sickened by the community’s support of him, is a yee-haw district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson played by Matthew McConaughey, in another of the film’s pitch-perfect performances. Davidson successfully moved the trial to a different county, telling a journalist, “I’m not sure I can find 12 citizens in Panola County willing to convict Tiede.” In the film, he propels a counter message: Bernie is a killer, pure and simple, and murder can never be excused. To convince the jurors, Davidson amplifies his negative character assessment, and we have two extremes: the conservative townspeople standing by Bernie no matter what (despite him being “a little light in the loafers”, according to one local), and the DA screaming blue murder.
The truth, like in most things, is probably somewhere in the middle. And while it’s no secret which side Linklater is on (Tiede even lived in the director’s garage when he was temporarily freed, before being resentenced to life in prison), the extent to which justice should be determined by the community or by the law is ultimately a matter for viewers to decide – if they can ever reach a conclusion, or want to stop rewatching an amazing film.
Bernie is available to watch on Stan.