So, here’s a strange story and please keep in mind it’s true. Bernie Tiede moved to the East Texas town of Carthage in the 1990s. He took a position as an assistant funeral director and instantly become a beloved talking point of the bored small town with no secrets. He loved his job, painstakingly preparing the corpses, delivering hymns and sermons, consoling widows even weeks after their partner’s death, providing gifts to almost everyone, and generally endearing himself as the nicest man in town. Sure he was a little light in the loafers in a way some Texans don’t appreciate, but he was so kind and giving that it was never really commented on. The big surprise was when he struck up a friendship with 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent, the most loathed bitter old woman in town and also the richest.
At first she didn’t take too kindly to Bernie’s attempts to console her after her husband’s death, but gosh darn it his kind soul wore her down. Soon they were inseparable, attending musicals, taking long vacations overseas, and Bernie even took over her finances. Eventually even his sweet charms weren’t enough to subdue Marjorie’s acidic ways and she started to abuse the poor man and monopolize his time. Bernie might be the nicest SOB around, but even he’s got his limits and one afternoon he fired four shots into Marjorie’s back with a rifle and killed her. It was nine months before the body was found in a freezer and during that time Bernie and spent of $600,000 of her money helping the community, but murder is muder…well, maybe not in Carthage where there was such local love to Bernie that he actually had to be put on trial elsewhere so that his murder charges weren’t overlooked. Again, I can’t stress this enough: true story.
Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, School of Rock) discovered the tale of Bernie the genteel murderer in an issue of Texas Monthly back in 1998 and has spent a decade trying to turn it into a movie, writing the script with the article’s author Skip Hollandsworth. The years of perseverance were worth it because Bernie is easily one of the finest movies ever spun out of Linklater’s relaxed Southern drawl style of filmmaking. Perhaps what’s most surprising is his approach to the movie, both in the darkly/sweetly comedic tone and the use of interviews with actual Carthage residents. It’s almost like an Errol Morris documentary version of the tale (Gates of Heaven comes immediately to mind) spliced with a comedic fictionalization. The affection the actual Carthage residents feel for Bernie is genuine and hearing that spill out of their own eccentric mouths curbs the surreal nature of the bizarre comedic Southern Gothic. The humor that comes out of those people and their world is rather special. This isn’t some sort of sneering or condescending redneck comedy, but a film filled with affection for the Texas community that finds humor in their behavior without judgment. In many ways it calls to mind Jonathan Demme’s brilliant Melvin And Howard, both in the amusing n’ judgment-free view of the community and in the way it defies narrative convention to follow the messy and ever unpredictable structure of life.
Classifying the movie in genre terms is damn near impossible. There’s that odd blur between documentary and reality that complicates things and that’s only the start. It’s consistently funny, but never really constructs conventional jokes or gags like a comedy. It’s a true crime story, yet the crime itself never feels like the climatic focus, instead acting as more of an entry point to these characters and their world. The film is also a star vehicle in a way, but one that doesn’t highlight the central cast’s infamous charms, only their talent. Jack Black stars as Bernie in easily his best performance since, well the last time he worked with Linklater on School of Rock. His arched eyebrows and wailing screams make no appearance, with Black sublimating his natural personality and movie star charisma to disappear into Bernie’s unique, vaguely effeminate Southern charms. Though he still gets laughs out of Bernie’s unique personality, walk, and pants worn at wedgie-inducing heights.
Shirley MacLaine takes on the fiendish role of Marjorie with her lemon-sucking scowl and worn face reveling more than her sparse dialogue. She creates a believable old witch without ever forcing empathy. Some folks are just nasty and MacLaine clearly enjoys reveling in that type. Then there’s Matthew McConaughey as district attorney Danny Buck, who struts around town like a sheriff and is the only person in the community who actually wanted to punish Bernie for murder. It’s a wonderful thing that McConaughey has moved past the shirtless rom-com portion of his career. Now a little more weary and soft around the edges, he’s returned to actually acting. He’s damn good at it too, crafting a man who takes his job a little too seriously and righteously, never more than a few seconds away from some grand pronouncement or theory. He just needs someone willing to listen to him long enough to pick up on his nuggets of wisdom.
Bernie is a unique and strange little movie that will never be a hit, but has a damn good chance on slipping onto its share of top ten lists at the end of the year. Linklater’s deliberately meandering “hang-out” writing/directing style strives to simply observe characters and their world without forcing them into a narrative, which is perfectly suited to this material. If he filmed the story with a more conventional structure, it would be hard to swallow as fact. Played in this more ramshackle structure with deep compassion and understanding for all the characters involved, the film is as fascinating, sweet, unpredictable, and quietly arch as Bernie himself. It’s movie to get lost in and will reward repeating viewings that will undoubtedly reveal more nuances in the characters with every time. One of those rare films that makes viewers feel sad when it’s over, not because the ending is particularly tragic, but because the characters are no longer part of their lives. Days later, I still think about Bernie and even though I’m not normally one to cry out for sequels, I would love to see Black continue the role of the world’s sweetest murderer behind bars (apparently Bernie now leads church groups, sing-alongs, and cooking classes in prison). Don’t be surprised if you feel the same way.