This film’s tagline says it all: “A story so unbelievable it must be true.” Like many moviegoers these days, I discount any claims of a “true story” at the beginning of a film, and this movie was no different. Most of the unsettling story of assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (played hilariously and heartfelt by Jack Black) and his bizarre relationship with widow Marjorie Nugent (portrayed in crotchety glory by Shirley MacLaine) is told documentary-style by well-chosen actors who play small-town, plain-spoken residents.
Each firsthand account of Bernie and Marjorie’s story comes from real Carthage, Texas, citizens. I didn’t realize this myself until the movie was over and I watched through all the credits, which identified all the testimonial characters as being interviewed for the film, not acting.
It would be easy to assume these people are exaggerated. How often does one hear someone seriously say, “That dog don’t hunt”? If you’re familiar with these types of areas of the country, probably fairly often. What makes “Bernie” such an intriguing film isn’t just the story; it’s the storytellers.
If this movie were shot run-of-the-mill, total actor portrayal, based-on-a-true-story style, it would be a dull affair. Although I thought Black, MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey were nothing short of spectacular, my little movie nerd heart skipped a beat every time the local townspeople appeared on the screen.
I’m not sure I could go so far as to say this film style was fresh (we do have documentaries, after all), but the reward really came from the surprise of the movie’s authenticity. Sure, the story was probably tweaked, creative liberties were likely taken, but I mean authenticity in the sense that they let the Carthage people be themselves.
(Disclaimer: I know no form of “reality” in film and TV is truly real, but the point I’m making here is that the filmmakers let the bulk of the story come from the mouths of the people who were actually there to witness it. Kind of like watching “48 Hours.”)
I think I’ve done enough talking here. I’ll leave you with a taste of golden nuggets from one of the good ol’ boys of Carthage.
If you want to read a little more about the real Bernie Tiede, you can find it here.