Recently tagged “most underappreciated film of 2012” by the Los Angeles Times, Bernie (2012) is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who befriended and eventually murdered an elderly woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), in Carthage, Texas.
In real life, Tiede befriended Nugent in 1990, shot her in 1996, was convicted in 1998, and is serving a life sentence. The case deeply divided the townspeople of Carthage. Danny Buck Davidson, the district attorney played by Matthew McConaughey in the film, told a local paper in 1998, “This town is split up.” Nugent’s son, Dr. Ron Nugent, maintains that Tiede drove her family away and that her side of the story has never been told. On the other hand, there is a blog, Free Bernie Tiede, which allows Bernie to communicate with his supporters, and in August 2012, the Dallas Morning News reported that, after seeing the film, an Austin attorney has taken an interest in Tiede’s case.
But Bernie isn’t really about all that. It’s actually a character study, the kind Hollywood doesn’t really produce all that much any more, and, in this world of big-budget special effects showcases, something as narrow in scope and as perfectly executed as Bernie is a welcome refreshment.
In the film, Bernie is much beloved by all of Carthage for his affable personality and tireless involvement in many civic and church activities. A mortician by trade, it is his habit to check up on the town’s widows, and someone as unpleasant as Mrs. Nugent, recently bereaved, needs a friend. The two soon become inseparable, but Mrs. Nugent is also more and more possessive of and verbally abusive toward Bernie, who can’t deal with any kind of negativity or drama. One night he snaps and shoots her. He then hides her body and continues as if she’s still alive…just very very sick. Having been given power of attorney, Bernie also spends her money, but only to help other people.
When Marjorie’s body is found, the music on the movie’s soundtrack is the only real indication of sadness. Nobody, including her family, really missed her spiteful ways, only her money. No one in town can quite believe Bernie capable of murder, anyway; a few even hassle the district attorney to “leave poor Bernie alone.”
Reality and fiction meld in this genre-defying film. Bernie is a seamless mix of documentary-style interviews with actual Carthage townsfolk interspersed with re-enactments and scenes from Bernie’s point of view, which use actors. It’s pretty clear whose side director Richard Linklater is on, but the story and its implications are only part of this film’s pull. The casting is perfect. Black excels as Bernie, making the character relatable and the oddity of the plot believable. MacLaine makes the most of her smaller role, displaying a steely-eyed malice and hinting at the grief behind the jealousy. However, the citizens of Carthage steal the show — they are a charming, funny bunch whose loyalty to Bernie is as endearing as it is stubborn.