Bernie written and directed by Richard Linklater (Castle Rock Entertainment, Collins House Productions, Deep Freeze Productions, PG-13, 104 min)
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey.
Justice and Utility
If an action resulted in the happiness of an entire community, you would support it, right? Stated as an ethical position, this idea is utilitarianism.
Utilitarianism suggests the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people. If someone commits a crime, they have negatively affected others. Thus, the greatest good is to punish them for the benefit of others. But what if everyone likes the person who did the wrong? Should justice be distributed by order of how much we like the defendant?
Most often, people don’t need to ponder these difficulties. Bad people typically do bad things and good people are the righteous ones. But sometimes, a good person does something wrong. How should the public respond to such circumstances? Does principle reign supreme? If a good person does a bad thing, was he never a good person?
Such stances cause interesting questions. And they reside at the heart of Bernie.
The Likeable Mortician
A true story, Bernie follows the odd narrative surrounding Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). A small-town assistant mortician, Bernie is universally loved. He comforts the families of the deceased with the utmost care. He leads worship in the Methodist church. He knows everyone by name. He even helps others with their taxes.
Best of all, Bernie follows up with the widows of the town. Months after a funeral, you can count on Bernie to knock on the door of a widow with flowers and a comforting smile.
The Unusual Relationship
One day, while following up with recently widowed and rather wealthy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), Bernie feels compelled to crack this tough case, because Marjorie is widely considered a cold and unpleasant person.
Soon, his attempts to befriend turn into something more. The couple begins to travel together and Bernie quits the funeral business to become Marjorie’s personal assistant.
The Unfortunate Crime
After an extended period of insufferable and borderline abuse from Marjorie toward Bernie, their relationship becomes difficult to continue. Bernie feels an inability to socialize and it is killing him. Finally, in a fit of rage, Bernie murders Marjorie.
After 9 months of hiding his misdeed and submitting Marjorie’s money toward the good of the town, authorities find Marjorie’s body and Bernie quickly issues his mea culpa.
What’s interesting about Bernie is its anti-Dateline feel. Where we are all familiar with the dramatic, true-life narratives we hear on news-magazines, Bernie flips the narrative. Typically, the murderer gains access to the rich benefactor, earns mention on the will as an heir, and then kills to reap the benefits.
While Bernie fits this modus operandi, his intent is quite the opposite. He appreciates the benefits money provides, but he is not out to steal it. You really feel like Bernie somehow got the raw end of the deal.
In fact, most of the community felt the same, to the extent that the local district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) changes the venue of the trail to a town 50 miles away to avoid a biased jury.
What Does Justice Mean?
Bernie unfolds with a news-magazine interview style. Its true story is odd and forces us to ponder what we require from justice. If a good person does a bad deed, should we treat them differently than a bad person because we like them? Utilitarianism might suggest this conclusion, and it became a very real threat to the process of justice in Bernie’s case. Since Bernie murdered someone, is he a bad guy? That’s not an easy conclusion either, and Jack Black works tirelessly to create a likeable but slightly odd character.
Bernie is an excellent movie and I recommend it to anyone interested in deeper indie movies.
Verdict: 4 out of 5