We’re told at the outset that Bernie is based on a true story. Read the credits closely enough, and you’ll see that it was actually based on an article in Texas Monthly. That article was written by Skip Hollandsworth, who also co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Linklater. The film features interviews with real people who knew the real-life Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent. Even so, I refuse to believe that this movie portrayed events and people as they actually were. This movie has an unmistakable slant to it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The facts are these: Back in the ’80s, there was a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, name of Bernie Tiede (played in the film by Jack Black). He was known for going above and beyond at his job, not only for making the deceased look their best but also for his efforts at comforting the bereaved. Bernie was also known as a good Christian man who sang in the church choir, taught Sunday school, and occasionally gave sermons in place of the resident preacher. He also served on the chamber of commerce’s Christmas decoration committee and was very active in the drama department at Panola College.
Flash forward to March of 1990, when Bernie oversaw the funeral proceedings of R.L. “Rod” Nugent. The recently deceased had left his wife a controlling share in the First National Bank of Carthage, which made Marjorie Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine) the wealthiest widow in Carthage. Unfortunately, she was also known as a surly and extremely vindictive woman who would “turn down loans for a hobby.”
Bernie went to console the widow Nugent as he was wont to do, and somewhere along the way, they started courting. They went off on all manner of first-class travels together, and the notoriously stingy Marjorie started buying Bernie expensive gifts. She eventually got more possessive of Bernie, hiring him full-time to be her business manager, her chauffeur, and her constant companion. Marjorie had also made Bernie the sole heir to her estate, cutting out her entire family out of spite. Then, sometime in November of 1996, Bernie shot Marjorie four times in the back with a .22 rifle.
The body was hidden in a waist-high freezer for nine months. During that time, Bernie continued to care for Marjorie’s affairs, making up excuses as he went for why Marjorie was unavailable. He also spent a ton of Marjorie’s money on the people of Carthage, buying them cars, scholarships, and any number of other charitable gifts. The corpse was eventually discovered in July of 1997, Bernie was brought in for questioning, and he promptly confessed.
Texas District Attorney Danny Buck (played by Matthew McConaughey) was left with the task of prosecuting Bernie, but he had a very difficult situation on his hands. See, the people of Carthage all loved Bernie, and they hated Marjorie. They argued that even if Bernie was capable of such an evil act as murder, Marjorie undoubtedly had it coming. Popular opinion was so overwhelmingly in Bernie’s favor that Danny had to move the trial fifty miles from Carthage just to get an impartial jury.
Bernie was eventually found guilty. He’s currently serving a life sentence.
Did Bernie only love — and kill — Marjorie for her money? Was he really just a con artist the whole time? Did Marjorie deserve to be murdered? Linklater’s film never really answers any of these questions one way or another. It isn’t interested in portraying the morality of the situation, just the absurdity.
The interview segments make it abundantly clear that the people of Carthage are not intelligent people. They appear to be very superficial and closed-minded folk who stick to their beliefs come hell or high water. More than that, they are the very picture of small-town bumpkins. These are people of the land. The common clay of the South. You know, morons.
Then we have Danny Buck. The film portrays him as a bumbling idiot with his head stuck firmly up his own ass. The Danny of the film only sees Bernie as an awful excuse for a human being who deserves to rot in hell for committing the act of murder. That Bernie did so much good for the community is completely irrelevant to him. Not that it stops the community from hassling Danny at all opportunities to leave poor Bernie alone.
If the movie has any moral point to make, I think it’s the idea that there’s so much more to people than just black and white. Danny insists that Bernie is a monster, and he’s just as wrong and stupid as the people who insist that Bernie never committed a crime at all. Nobody is perfectly good or perfectly evil because nobody is perfect at all. We slip up on occasion, and sometimes those slip-ups require intervention from authority. So in come the legislators, lawyers, judges, and juries, every one of whom has their own flaws and foibles.
This is why society isn’t perfect. Life isn’t fair and precious few things are as simple as we’d like them to be. Does this mean that Bernie was wrongfully convicted? We could argue all day about whether or not Bernie got an unfair punishment. Maybe Bernie only ever cared about Marjorie’s money, or maybe he saw something in her that no one else did. Maybe he really was a psychopath, or maybe Marjorie just pushed him too far. We may never know for sure.
Anyway, maybe Bernie was wrongfully convicted and maybe he wasn’t, but that isn’t the point either way. The point is that wrongful convictions happen.
But let’s get back to the absurdity of the film. We’ll start with Jack Black, who parlays his hammy persona into a character who’s far too good to be true. We first meet Bernie at a lecture, in which he teaches the art of embalming to a college class. We see firsthand that he takes a great deal of pride and passion in his work, and that he’s also undoubtedly very skilled. On the one hand, it’s easy to see why people would entrust their remains to him. On the other hand, it’s kinda creepy how much Bernie loves his job. If someone told me the guy was a serial killer based solely on that introductory scene, I’d be like “Yeah, I could see that.”
Still, the people of Carthage are shown to be comically oblivious to Bernie’s flaws. More than that, they actively refuse to acknowledge his flaws. They explicitly deny that he might have been gay, despite the fact that he was very effeminate and showed no interest in women his age. He’s exceedingly charitable and he’s never seen without a smile on his face, yet no one thinks that he’s hiding something. That should tell you just how naive Bernie’s neighbors are.
Getting back to Black, it’s become very easy to forget that Jack Black is actually very talented. For example, Black has devoted so much of his career to acting as a rock star parody that you’d be forgiven for not knowing he could really sing. No fooling, the guy’s got pipes. The film doesn’t offer any joke lyrics or splashy musical numbers, and there’s no attempt to make fun of his singing ability in any way. Black sings actual gospel music in this film, playing the scenes totally straight, and he kills it.
Black goes through the entire film with a strangely high-pitched voice, yet he still manages to sound like the voice just comes naturally. The character acts as if he’s got something to hide, yet he never comes off as dangerous. In fact, Bernie manages to stay oddly chipper in even the most depressing circumstances, which leads to a surprising amount of dark comedy. The nine-month period after Marjorie’s death comes to mind, though Bernie also gets a rather funny scene in prison as well. The bottom line is that Black always manages to stay entertaining, which is more than I can say for Shirley MacLaine.
The film mishandled Marjorie in so many ways. To start with, the film establishes her nasty reputation by way of interview segments with Carthage residents. There are precious few times when we actually see Marjorie earning scorn from the entire town, which violates the “show, don’t tell” rule to a detrimental degree. I’ll grant that the townspeoples’ remarks are very humorous, but still. The widow’s malevolence is so poorly established that it fails to register when she takes a shine to Bernie.
But then Marjorie becomes the Norma Desmond to Bernie’s Joe Gillis. And it wasn’t remotely interesting to watch. I’ve seen Steel Magnolias, so I know that MacLaine can play a mean old woman in a funny way, but no such effort is made here. In fact, the times when MacLaine bothers to emote are the exceptions instead of the rule. She’s the one vacuum of humor in what’s otherwise a very clever dark comedy. Marjorie’s scenes were so painful and MacLaine was so terribly misused that I kept waiting for her to hurry up and die.
Rounding out the lead cast is Matthew McConaughey, who’s the real surprise of the movie. I can’t possibly put into words how much this pompous, self-righteous, ugly little git is different from the usual McConaughey role. Instead, Danny Buck is portrayed as a guy who wishes he could be Matthew McConaughey. No, more than that, he honestly thinks of himself as Matthew McConaughey. There’s absolutely nothing glamorous or attractive about this character, which makes it all the more impressive that McConaughey played the part with such aplomb. I sincerely hope that the man has left his rom-com days behind him for good, because I’m starting to think that he has some serious dramatic chops.
Finally, I must address my extremely mixed feelings regarding the movie’s use of interview footage. On the one hand, the interview footage provides the movie with most of its humor. When the people onscreen are either acting ignorant or telling honest jokes, it’s very funny. But the footage becomes less funny with the knowledge that these are actual people who really knew the subjects of the movie, and their lines are completely unscripted. It’s one thing to laugh at a fictional character, or even a fictional representation of a real person, but laughing at actual people in this way feels kind of mean, especially since the film was so blatantly edited to make them look even more stupid. I realize that this was necessary as part of the “black and white” theme discussed earlier, and I’m sure the people of Carthage really did see Bernie in such a saintly way (that’s the reason given in the nonfictional account, after all), but still.
There’s also the matter of how the interview footage is used in telling the story. It’s used as a quick and cheap way to convey information, and I’ve already talked about how that did a huge disservice to the film’s presentation of Marjorie. More than that, there are huge stretches of this movie that are nothing more than so many people talking to the camera. What’s worse, they’re all presented in such a uniform way that they start to sound like the same character. There’s such a sharp divide between the interview parts of the film and the narrative parts of the film that the plot feels very fragmented.
And lest I forget, there are several interview segments with actors in character, and the actual people of Carthage get occasional walk-on parts in the narrative. You’d think this would make the movie less fragmented, but it only gives the impression that the movie doesn’t know just how fictional it wants to be.
Weighing out the pros and cons, there’s no doubt that Bernie works damn well as a dark comedy. Though Shirley MacLaine isn’t used to anywhere near her full potential, Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey both do a great job at delivering humorous characters who are sympathetic yet hard to trust. Your conscience might nag you for laughing at the sincere yet ignorant remarks of East Texas yokels, but their remarks serve to illustrate just how ridiculous it is to think that any human being is beyond sin. That said, the prosecution and defense are both portrayed as equally sincere and equally ludicrous, so the absurdity of the case becomes the focus without passing judgment one way or another.
All told, I’d say the film is definitely worth a look.