Review Date: 5-11-12
Release Date: 5-4-12 (expanded)
Runtime: 104 min.
Costume Designer: Kari Perkins
Bernie is a fantastic movie based on a true story. I first heard about this film via Joe Rhodes’ excellent NY Times article How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze… There were two pictures accompanying the article – one, of the real Bernie and Marjorie Nugent, and the other of Jack Black as Bernie and Shirley MacLaine as Nugent. The costumes on Black and MacLaine sent me rocketing skyward with glee. I knew I had to see this film as soon as I could, based on the costumes alone. However, after reading the article, I knew I needed to see it because the truth of this story is stranger than fiction!
In the 1990s, Bernie Tiede was a mortician in small-town Carthage, TX. Marjorie Nugent was a recently widowed (and very wealthy) woman, notorious for her unpleasant personality. Bernie strikes up an unlikely friendship with Marjorie, and soon their lives start to merge.
Bernie is well loved in Carthage, singing with the church choir, sponsoring youth baseball teams, and comforting the bereaved. As their relationship blooms, Marjorie takes him on long, expensive trips, buys him expensive trinkets, and soon he finds himself her constant companion. Her callousness toward others is unchanged, but toward Bernie, she is quite affable. At first.
Things change and Marjorie reverts back to the cantankerous behavior that made her the most feared woman in town. One day, Bernie has enough. He shoots her with a rifle and stows her body in a freezer, covered with bags of peas and other food. Bernie doesn’t mention the murder to anyone, and continues to live his life as though she is still around, just “sick” and “unable to come to the door”.
Meanwhile, since Bernie has been given power of attorney over her affairs, he drains her bank accounts by donating money to the community. The church gets a new wing, he buys cars for people, airplanes for himself, spending Marjorie’s money with abandon. It doesn’t take too long in a small town for people to start talking, and soon the Sheriffs arrive at Marjorie’s home and find her in the deep freeze.
Bernie goes to trial – and it is worth mentioning that the trial had to be moved to another county at the request of the prosecutors, because so many people in Carthage thought Bernie sympathetic; he was becoming a folk hero and the DA thought the jury would be biased in his favor – and in the end, he is convicted of murder and sent to prison.
The film has some WONDERFUL townsfolk characters, including real Carthage residents who knew Bernie and Marjorie, and they fill out the story very colorfully with their gossip and speculation. At times it feels like a documentary, or perhaps more pointedly, a MOCKumentary, but we’ll get to that in a second.
Jack Black gives a wonderful performance in this film. Perilously close to the edge, but never over, he imbues a sense of helplessness and vulnerability to Bernie that I have not heretofore seen in any of his performances. He’s just great. He gets to sing and dance, and yes, he get to kill Shirley MacLaine. The performance feels humble and real, and he deserves all of the attention he is getting for his work.
Shirley MacLaine, while she doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as I had suspected, is also excellent in her role as the cranky, mostly despicable Marjorie. Matthew McConaughey as DA Danny Buck Davidson is also very good – you don’t look at him and see “Matthew McConaughey, Movie Star”, you see the character.
All of this brings me to the costumes, because I think that they are absolutely integral to the believability of these characters. Bernie wears things like printed polo shirts tucked in to high-waisted pleated chinos, braided leather belts, loafers, and the like. It’s SUCH a look. But very likely, it’s exactly what the real Bernie Tiede wore.
Marjorie starts the film in black costumes, and slowly blooms into vivid color as her relationship with Bernie intensifies. Danny Buck exemplifies Texas justice in shiny grey suits (neutral in tone – symbolically and literally, let it be noted) with cowboy boots, tinted glasses and a tall white cowboy hat. There is so much at work in the costumes of this film; it’s hard to absorb it in 104 minutes.
The events of the film take place in the early-to mid 1990s, but no mention of the period is ever made. The film looks contemporary, but it has such a region-specific style to it that it still looks 1990s in that sense. In no way do I mean to disparage small-town America, or Carthage specifically, but more often than not, people in these kinds of small towns have better things to do than to update their wardrobes every year with the latest styles. The TRUTH of sartorial choices in small towns is that (for the most part, and specifically in this example) they are not up to date with the latest, most cutting-edge fashion, for myriad reasons.
For us in Los Angeles, this kind of small-town “look” comes off as ironic or playfully tongue-in-cheek. It is true that in Los Angeles and other big cities, we tend to be out of touch with what the rest of this country actually looks like. Bernie is here to remind us.
If this film had been made by a studio (with a bevy of producers consulting on every detail of the film) it would NOT look the way it does. These costume choices would never fly with studio brass – they would be considered outrageous and distracting. However, this is an independent film, made by a director and producers who want to tell a real story about real people, warts and all, the way it truly IS. And for this reason, I think the film is simply outstanding and should serve as a reminder (not only to indie filmmakers, but to studio execs as well) that there is more to filmmaking than coolness or glossy glamour. There is something captivating and exciting about real stories and real characters, warts and all.
The film’s use of townsfolk to flesh out the story is really something. These are people who speak the language of Texas, using idioms and turns of phrase you won’t hear in Beverly Hills. They are a colorful bunch, and they are hilarious. The use of these vignettes reminds me of Best in Show, which was a mockumentary. Stylistically and tonally, these vignettes are very similar, so it’s enough to wonder if Bernie isn’t also positioned to be more tongue-in-cheek than it actually is. I had to ask the costume designer herself about it, and I was surprised by her answer!
I cannot recommend this film highly enough. It is hilarious, engaging and seriously entertaining. Please try to see it when it comes to your area, and ENJOY!