Only God’s Grace Can Save
Release Date: May 04, 2012
Audience: Older teenagers and adults
Runtime: 104 minutes
Distributor: Millenium Entertainment
Director: Richard Linklater
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BERNIE stars Jack Black in the title role. Bernie Tiede is the ultimate Christian funeral director, beloved by the residents of small-town Carthage, Texas. He prepares the bodies with verve, cosmetizes them to perfection, and arranges the perfect service. He also sings Christian hymns like nobody else to ensure the souls of the departed ascend into the great (and explicitly Christian) hereafter with as little difficulty as possible for those they leave behind. His interests are not purely capitalist. Weeks after a funeral, Bernie is at pains to take care packages and flowers to the little old widows of the departed. As one townsperson puts it, every old lady in Carthage has a crush on him.
One day, Bernie befriends Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who’s about 50 years his senior. They become close travel companions. Russia, Florida, Europe – the world is their oyster, and it comes, courtesy of Marjorie’s estate, with first-class airfare and luxurious hotels. This is all the more surprising to the inhabitants of Carthage, who never fail to remind the viewer just how mean Marjorie could be. To Bernie, however, she’s a lonely old woman in need of a friend. Platonic friendship? Romantic affair? Christian charity and generosity? The movie leaves it up to the viewer to decide, although it makes clear that throughout the friendship, Marjorie holds Bernie and his time hostage, and, in turn, he never fails to spend a good deal of the money from her estate. All the while, Bernie makes donations to the church and to any other business in town in need of a boost, extolling the virtue of generosity. As one character remarks, Bernie never buys himself a new car, but gives to those in need – and legally, as Marjorie elects to appoint him as sole beneficiary and executor of her estate. Too good to be true? Perhaps. And yet, when he can escape from Marjorie’s clutches, Bernie serves as music director of his church, coaches Little League baseball, continues to organize the best funerals in the county, and acts (to perfection) in the community theatre.
Then one day, on his way out to lunch with Marjorie, Bernie snaps. He picks up an Armadillo gun and shoots Marjorie four times in the back. Regaining consciousness from what is portrayed as a possible nervous breakdown or psychological break on screen, he immediately drops to his knees, implores Jesus Christ, and asks what he should do.
However, it seems the voice of the Lord is difficult to discern that day. Instead of turning himself in, Bernie carefully folds Marjorie’s body into the freezer and continues to live his life as a “model” Christian citizen of Carthage, pretending all the while that Marjorie is still alive. At no point, however, does the movie imply his decision is a wise one – nor does it glamorize Bernie’s contradictory behavior.
Of course, as in the real-life story, the chickens come home to roost and justice is served – all thanks to the local DA (Matthew McConaughey), who understands that Bernie will never receive a fair trial in Carthage because he’s simply too popular. He wisely requests that the trial be moved some 47 miles away, to the squirrel hunting capital of Texas, where Bernie can be judged by peers who aren’t blinded by their love for Bernie or in denial of his heinous crime.
Throughout the trial, there’s never any suggestion that Bernie’s Christian character is a mockery. “I know I’ve done very wrong,” he confesses, “and I must atone for my sins.” The final message of the movie is clear: Bernie Tiede’s life conviction is warranted. Thus, the truth, and Justice, triumph. He will be in jail until he is 82, and it is up to Bernie himself to atone with God as far as his immortal soul is concerned. As one resident of Carthage points out in the closing sequence, “I don’t care what he did. Yes, I do. It was wrong, but I believe that if he was truly sorry for what he did and asked God’s forgiveness, God would forgive him. And, that’s all that matters.”
Shot with a mix of scenes played by actors and real-live interviews with Carthage’s finest, who knew Bernie Tiede in real life, BERNIE masterfully portrays how the brutal murder devastates this Christian community to the point that they attempt to justify Marjorie’s death because Bernie was, in appearance, such a nice upstanding man. In the end, true justice triumphs over personal opinion and it’s left in the hands of God to extend grace, should Bernie truthfully ask for it and turn away from his sins.
Jack Black’s performance is totally captivating. His name may very well be mentioned a lot when the awards season arrives. Nonetheless, due to the nature of the themes, the murder plot, and the movie’s foul language, MOVIEGUIDE ® must advise extreme caution for BERNIE. This is a movie for older media-wise viewers.
Based on a true story, BERNIE is one of the surprise movies of the year. It’s perfectly executed with a captivating, understated performance by Jack Black as Bernie. The movie doesn’t glamorize Bernie’s contradictory behavior. In the end, Truth and Justice triumph. BERNIE does have some strong foul language and mature themes, however. Therefore, MOVIEGUIDE® advises caution. BERNIE is a movie for older media-wise moviegoers.