Woody Allen once said, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” It’s a common belief in modern society to avoid death as long as possible through medicine, denial, whatever it takes. It is strange to people when someone accepts death. We only see that sort of character from a wise Buddhist monk or, in this case, a small East Texas town.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is the most liked person in town. He’s a funeral director who sings in the choir, helps the little old ladies with everything and is just plain sweet. For years, he is the best friend, caretaker and possible lover of this awful old woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). She’s a woman of few words, but when she does speak she’s typically mean.
In many ways, it seems like Bernie hangs out with Marjorie because she’s the only person who doesn’t treat him like a saint. However, after several years, Bernie can’t take her beratement and one day shoots her dead.
By the way, this is a true story.
The strangest part about all of this is that nobody wants Bernie to go to jail. The only one in town who thinks that someone who committed cold-blooded murder should be punished is the DA, Danny “Buck” Davidson (Matthew McConaughey). Because nobody thinks this is a big deal, he appears to be the only sane one. In fact, everyone thinks Bernie should have done it in a subtler way because he probably could have gotten away with it.
Throughout the film, Bernie is emotional about the bodies he brings in to his parlor, but he is also very calculating about how to glue eyelids shut or break legs to fit in a coffin. In this movie, death is either a business or not a big deal. The format for this film is perfect because as a fake documentary with the talking-head interviews, you really get a feel of the town and how people outside of the story felt about what had happened.
I love MacLaine, but the real standout stars are Black and McConaughey. They are both out of their comfort zone and excellent as two slightly dorky characters filled with complexities. Director Richard Linklater has worked with both of them before in broader comedic roles (“School of Rock” and “Dazed and Confused”), but these are real showcase roles.
It’s a dark film because it’s light on dark material. There is humor in the film, but it ends up being so much fun just trying to figure out how this community operates. This is an odd treat.
The bonus features have a few featurettes. One highlights how good Black is in this movie, another is about the true story behind this movie, and another is about the real people from East Texas who were talking heads. Thankfully, they aren’t heavy on clips because the people themselves are fascinating. There are also deleted scenes.