It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday.
This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bernie” (2011)
When you live in a small town, everybody knows everyone else. They know what you’re like, who your parents were, what you do for a living, whether or not you go to church, and probably a few too many “dirty little secrets” that they use to gossip behind your back. For Bernie Tiede of Carthage, Texas, small town life led to some speculation over whether his effeminate personality indicated he was gay. But it also meant that everybody knew him as the kindest, warmest, friendliest and most generous man they knew. Nobody was more well liked than Bernie.
Then he killed Marjorie Nugent. And despite the logic of that fact, while Bernie Tiede’s life changed, public opinion didn’t.
That’s the stranger than fiction basis of Richard Linklater’s 2011 film “Bernie,” which stars Jack Black in the title role. He’s a 39-year-old assistant funeral director loved by one and all. Kind-hearted soul that he was, he always delivered a gift and checked up on those the deceased left behind. Nobody made him do it, he wasn’t getting paid, he just cared. That habit leads to his befriending 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, who’s portrayed by Academy Award winner Shirely MacLaine.
Contrary to Bernie, nobody much cares for Mrs. Nugent. Even her own family hates her—she hasn’t spoken to two of her grandchildren in years after they sued her in an effort to get some of her husband’s money. She’s mean, nasty, and entirely lonely, but unwilling to bridge the gap of emotional connection. Until Bernie knocks on her door. Soon they’re eating meals and going on expensive vacations together. Eventually, Tiede even became the sole benefactor of Nugent’s will. She became controlling and jealous. Tiede was on call 24 hours a day, more a servant than a friend, but unable to walk away due to his inherent goodness (not to mention all the money being thrown his way). It was a clash of personalities, and Nugent’s hate beat out Tiede’s love. In a moment of weakness, Tiede snapped and shot Nugent in the back four times.
On paper, it was an open and shut case for Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), the county’s district attorney. A young gay man had gotten wrapped up in the luxurious lifestyle that friendship offered a rich older woman. He was already getting a handsome amount of money, but stood to be the sole benefactor if she was out of the picture. So he killed her, end of story.
Only it wasn’t. Despite the facts, despite Tiede’s confession, the people of Carthage refused to believe their Bernie could have done such an awful thing. Those who would admit it would indicate the old bat had it coming to her. Believing he’d be unable to get a fair decision out a jury made up of people from Carthage, Davidson asked for a change of venue for the trial—a common request of defense lawyers, but a rare occurrence for a prosecutor.
In “Bernie,” Linklater takes the “small town folks who won’t believe the facts” idea and milks it for every bit of comedic and dramatic juice it’s worth. And it works, the film has a 92 percent rating on the Tomatometer. Linklater’s co-writer was Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” was the basis for the film.
“Bernie” uses a mockumentary style to give it that small town gossip feel. It often cuts to interviews with fictional East Texas residents (portrayed by real East Texas residents), who weigh in on its events. The question of whether they were genuine accounts was on my mind until McConaughey appeared on screen.
The film offers one of Black’s best performances to date. Perhaps the only role that could could compete came in 2003’s “School of Rock,” another Linklater project that allowed Black to mix in his quirk and musical talents. The actor makes you believe Bernie Tiede is someone who really could (and did) exist. He’s got funny characteristics, finds subtle humor in effeminate movement and body language, but never delves into the realm of the cartoonish. You understand why Bernie might’ve picked up that rifle, you might even approve (as the people of Carthage seem to).
Enjoyable and easy to watch, “Bernie” is a black comedy that mixes just the right amount of both ingredients. It seems to mock the eccentric Southern personalities it contains in a fashion that is loving rather than cruel while implying greater questions about the dangers of faith trumping fact.
Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.