‘Bernie’: Beware the overly friend mortician

Did you grow up in a small town? Was it like being cocooned in a warm blanket against the cold impersonal world with the homey scent of cinnamon wafting through the air? Or was it like being spied on every single minute of every single day?

In a small town, everyone knows you and everyone knows your business or at least thinks they know your life.

The movie “Bernie” is about how a small town was seduced by a smooth talking nice guy who went from being an assistant funeral director in a small rural town to the kept man of the richest woman in town. Based on the 1998 article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” in Texas Monthly, the movie is about the 39-year-old murderer, Bernie, who shot the 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent in the back, put her in a freezer underneath some packaged foods and then pretended she was still alive and spent her money on himself and others.

What made this ripe for a black comedy was that Bernie was a well-loved figure in the community, even before his relationship with Nugent. Nugent, however, had alienated her family, including her only child, and all her relatives.  Nice versus nasty. No one particularly seemed to morn Nugent’s passing while so many people loved Bernie that the District Attorney requested a change of venue in order to have a fair trial.

Director Richard Linklater doesn’t focus so much on our man Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede and we don’t get any deep psychological insights. Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth’s script mixes fact with fiction. The interplay between Bernie and the widow is intercut with interviews with real Carthage citizens and actors.  We can’t tell who is whom.

Jack Black as Bernie is more subdued than usual and yet you can see his control. He wants to be something else, something more and that could be simply that he’s hiding his sexuality. When we see the neediness and the demanding nature of Nugent when he’s become her employee, we also understand how Nugent drove everyone away.

If Black is more subdued than usual, so is the smarmy quality of Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck Davidson, the district attorney. He even keeps his shirt on. Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie got the approval of at least one family member, and perhaps two–nephew Joe Rhodes who wrote an article for “The New York Times Magazine.”

If Marjorie Nugent didn’t get much love during her lifetime because she didn’t have people skills, then she’s getting more love and attention now. Bernie, who’s serving time, helped her make thousands of people she never met smile. I guess that’s some kind of an achievement anyone would be proud of.

For the curious, Linklater shows the real Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent during the credits.  For Bernie, small town life seemed to be a too cozy and so seductively safe that he couldn’t leave even after he had murdered her. For Marjorie, she was someone and she could lord that over them all and they couldn’t very well easily ignore her like someone in the impersonal big city. like Austin. Marjorie and her husband had been living in Longview (population 81, 336) until 1989 when they moved back to Carthage (population 6,700). Small town life can be both depending upon who you are. You do get the feeling that despite that murder, the world would be a better place with more Bernies.

Bernie” is available on Netflix instant streaming.

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