“We may have to make a leg adjustment”
The unique true story of Carthage, TX assistant mortician Bernie Tiede proves worthy for the big screen. A man too kind, compassionate, and humble for words, he shows how the best of us can still find a bottomless wealth of love stifled to the point of murder. It surely happens more than we’d like to believe, those “he was such a harmless and quiet gentleman” explaining our inability to comprehend our neighbors’ potential for dark deeds. For Tiede, however, those usually empty platitudes are fact. If the author of the article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas”—written for Texas Monthly magazine—is telling even the smallest shred of truth, an entire town would have ran to the courthouse pleading for a spot on the jury to breathlessly declare “not guilty”.
Once Skip Hollandsworth‘s tale of homicide and the enamored town quick to deliver forgiveness to the confessed criminal and damnation to his victim caught the eye of writer/director Richard Linklater, Bernie was born. Rather than tell it as a straight dramatization, though, Linklater keeps it rooted in its journalistic ancestry through a faux talking heads documentary style. As our Bernie (Jack Black) is portrayed in his genial, saintly actions about town, the words of the people whose lives he touched help describe him in what are staged to appear like candid interviews. I’ve read that some of these insights are delivered by the actual men and women who lived in Carthage during Bernie’s residency, but it’s an effective bit of artifice whether they are all actors or not.
To the town, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) was an immovable Scrooge in business, lording over employees inherited after her husband’s death; prickly and cold to all who dared try engage her in friendly human interaction. A millionaire clutching her purse tight despite so many in need, watching Bernie’s attempt to sooth her pain became somewhat of a lark. Everyone assumed it was futile—she was a nut even his infinite charm couldn’t crack. Yet he somehow found a way. Relentlessly taking her to play rehearsals, orchestral concerts, and whatever other cultural activities called for a plus one, Marjorie became kinder, more alive, and dare I say lukewarm. But like for all those she loved before, it wasn’t to last. Bernie had become hers and sharing never was a concept she enjoyed practicing.
It’s unsurprising to learn Linklater found his screenplay on the boring side of entertainment upon completion. Lucky for us, however, he knew it would come to life on screen with an eclectic cast of characters in their gossipy splendor. Because Bernie is at its best when the locals are in the spotlight like their lunchtime hounding of prosecutor Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) to go easy on their favorite choir leader, theater director, and funereal genius. Seeing Sonny Carl Davis accuse him of forcing Tiede’s confession or badmouthing the white trash jury only gets overshadowed by McConaughey’s own mother Kay joining the ensemble with snarky retorts. It’s amazing how easy some can ignore criminal activity if it involves the town’s favorite son murdering its most notorious despot.
When one looks at it objectively, a murderer deserves prison for taking another’s life no matter how provoked or remorseful afterwards. It’s a whole other story objectively, however, especially amongst a close-knit town with loud opinions. Nugent was such a miser that she wrote out every family member she had from her will to reward Bernie’s loyalty. She even gave him power of attorney to do with it as he pleased. Ever the charitable soul, Tiede never once exceeded his moral code when it came to that wealth while she was alive or dead. In fact, he spent it all on his neighbors through small business loans, a new church wing, and birthday gifts for the children. He was Carthage’s savior—in large part because he killed Nugent.
This is what makes his tale so unbelievably intriguing. Not only did Tiede kill Marjorie, but he also kept her locked in a freezer for nine months before her stockbroker Lloyd (Richard Robichaux) called the cops behind a granddaughter hoping for an inheritance. And yet the town still wanted to forgive him. Bernie tearfully confesses, his lawyer Scrappy Holmes (Brady Coleman) uses his client’s true remorse without spin, and the town travels to the trial to show support. It’s a freak show of a case that you’ll be hard-pressed not to hope alongside them that he is miraculously found innocent. Carthage was better off during his ruse and they’d have buried Ms. Nugent twenty feet below ground if it meant Bernie remained free.
While the story’s eccentric facts allow for this reaction, you still need the authentic portrayals of Southern hospitality on display. The sprawling cast reveling in juicy exchanges of gossip on the case, the man, sexuality, supposed affairs, and the slippery slope of justice engrosses you for the duration through nuanced, matter-of-fact delivery. Watching them stare into the camera and deadpan accounts injects you into the action when the fictional reenactment can’t. These cut scenes lend credence to the film by grounding it in reality with documentary convention—our preconceptions towards specific targeted artifice tricking our minds into forgetting it’s fake. It’s an inspired stylistic choice that truly adds a layer of enjoyment crucial to success.
One must also applaud those performing the meat of story, a much funnier one than their real-life counterparts probably would admit. McConaughey is great as the lawyer separating personal feelings from what’s right and necessary to uphold society’s values. MacLaine is effectively mean-spirited and selfish at every turn towards those she hates and loves equally. But above all else lies Jack Black’s most complete film role to date, one more than deserving of his recent Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy/Musical. He infuses such a joy of life into the character; singing, smiling, and never letting the world’s troubles get him down. Unfortunately for the real Bernie Tiede, that affable heart was no match for the devil he willfully let steer him—no matter how briefly—to the dark side.
 Jack Black stars as Bernie in Millennium Films’ Bernie (2012)
 Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black (Bernie) in Millennium Films’ Bernie (2012)
 Matthew McConaughey stars as Danny Buck Davidson in Millennium Films’ Bernie (2012)