bernie_revisedy“Whether you see Bernie the man as guilty, innocent or just a misunderstood undertaker, Bernie the movie is a 99 minute genre bending dose of smiles and chuckles.”

running time: 99 min
writer: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth
director: Richard Linklater
select cast:  Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
year: 2011

Review (text version)

Hands up all the Jack Black fans?
I’m with you – all that chaotic forced schtick!  It’s exhausting and just untidy.

Support roles like in High Fidelity, yeah he was great… in small doses… but in lead roles, I mean most of the time he’s like a naughty teenager and I see enough of those on public transport.

But!  I do love movies that blur the lines between reality and fiction – the more they keep me guessing “is this bit real or not?” the closer I tend to lean towards the screen and in this film we get to lean a lot with a smart and snappy blending of fact and fiction – part drama, part mocumentary and for once, a wonderfully restrained and imaginative Jack Black.  Add Shirley Maclean and a chorus of town gossips and invite this fella in to brighten up your life and your death – Meet Bernie.

(insert poster)

Richard Linklater was suddenly one of those news worthy writer director’s after BOYHOOD was bally-hood about in early 2015 but in between waiting for his cast to grow facial hair and shoot some more monosylabic teenage angst over not very much, he helmed this totally delightful piece of dark comedy.

From the opening scenes in which Bernie heads a lecture and demonstration on preparing a body for an appropriate presentation at a funeral, I was hooked by its macabre wit and ballsy manifesto to go all the way into territory that was guaranteed to upset half of middle America and middle anywhere else.

Bernie comes to the town of Carthage, in East Texas, as an undertaker and not only is he accomplished in his work, he’s meticulously groomed, always well spoken, congenial, patient, generous, a regular church goer and unfortunately an outsider to the town (translates to the fact that he wasn’t born there) but he’s been embraced by the local community as if he might, almost, be one of them.

How do we know he’s so loved?  The towns folk tell us.  Very early in the film Linklater introduces his chorus of approval, and disapproval, in the form of real townsfolk telling us (or at least a documentary film crew) exactly what they think of Bernie… or are they, talking to a documentary film crew… and are they really townsfolk?  This was the sit forward part for me because I was totally convinced these people were the real McCoys and then later the same people start appearing in what are clearly scripted, rehearsed and choreographed scenes with the “actors”.  So, are some of them actors?  Are some of them real people?  That’s the fun part so even though I now know, sorry, no loose lips here!

Bernie befriends an aging and very wealthy widow, Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley Maclean who is well, let’s say, not the sweetheart of Carthage – she’s a grumpy old gal with a mile wide mean streak and our Community Chorus tells us exactly what they think of her.

Maclean is devilishly good – so cold, so deadpan, so manipulative and so far away from the cooky and bubbly characters of her youth.  In the last 20 years she has totally reinvented herself as an actor with roles like this and the 2005 dramedy IN HER SHOES.  It’s great to see someone still delivering the goods and still evolving as a performer in her 80’s.

Her scenes are all too brief because, well, she dies… and I’m not giving away anything that wasn’t in the trailer or on the back of the DVD box, OK?  Her demands on the always eager to please Bernie become so great, he just looses his cool when she oversteps the mark one day and… he kills her… and hides her a chest freezer… well it’s a natural reaction to someone so mean isn’t it?

Bernie continues to live high on Mrs Nugent’s money, making it appear she’s still alive and kicking, and since no one really liked her no one cares too much that’s she not around.

It’s a tried and true territory for a black comedy but what’s even more bizarre is that it’s all true.  Director Linklater even attended Bernie’s trial’ knew the real prosecutor Danny Buck, a court room cowboy with a cool confidence and a quick tongue.

A turning point of the drama is when the trail is moved from Carthage to another town.  Why?  It was felt by the legal system, even though the evidence was clear and Bernie had admitted to killing Mrs Nugent that he might just get off very lightly because he was just so nice.

As Linklater said in an interview…
“It just proves that life is a lot like high school. If you’re popular, you get away with stuff, and if people don’t like you, you’re kind of screwed no matter what happens.

Our criminal justice system is a pretty arbitrary thing, based on emotions, so Danny Buck was able to take advantage of that once he moved the trial—which by the way, no one’s ever heard of. I’ve followed this case for 12 or 13 years now, and I’ve asked every DA, lawyer, judge, everyone I come across, and nobody has ever heard of a trial being moved because the defendant was too well-liked.” (

Linklater had access to court records of exactly what was said and at the script stage, with so much real material on the page, the project could justifiably have been called a “documentary”, but, he dismisses the idea of going that way and the result is this… Well, is it  dramatised comedy? Is it a mocumentary? Is it…? You’ll just have to decide for yourself.   Still, much of what you will hear as “dialogue” comes directly from the real court records and lengthy anecdotal interviews with people who knew Bernie and Marjorie, all gathered and compiled by journalist Skip Hollandsworth who interviewed townsfolk and trial participants at the time.

Linklater and Jack Black even met with the real Bernie in jail, in advance of filming, for Black to get a little more insight into the manner of the man and he has definitely embellished Bernie with some distinctive manners.  Was Bernie gay?  Surely such a good church going man as Bernie couldn’t be “that way”?  Had he maybe just not met the right girl?  Come on he’s a camp as a row of pink tents!… again the townsfolk let us know EXACTLY what they absolutely know Bernie is or is not.

There is also a level of organic reality in the film for both Linklater and Matthew McConaughey playing prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson.  Both are Texan born, both within miles of the the real locations, so the sense of place and people was well known to them.

Whether you see Bernie the man as guilty, innocent or just a mild mannered and misunderstood undertaker, Bernie the movie is a 99 minute genre bending dose of smiles and chuckles.

Was Bernie deserving of the life in prison sentence he ultimately received?

Well, proving truth is indeed stranger than fiction, March 2015 sees Bernie out of prison but back in court to be retried.

Even prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson, who pushed to convict Bernie in 1999, said he believed Bernie deserved to be convicted of second-degree murder, which carries only a maximum 20-year sentence.

So, how yoo awwll feelin’ ‘bout a sequel?



Production company:

Newtown Flicks


Greg Punch


Mandalay Films
Wind Dancer Films
Detour Filmproduction

Distributed in USA by Alchemy / Millenium Entertainment

Select images:
The Texas Trbune (online page) 6 May 2014

WFAA – 8 ABC NEWS (online page) 01 April 2015

Photo of Jack Black
© Glenn Francis,
Used under creative commons Attribution 2.0

Photo of Richard LInklater
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Used under creative commons Attribution 2.0

Photo of Jack Black as “Bernie”
© Mandalay Vision

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