Bernie Tiede, the cheerful undertaker played to flouncy perfection by Jack Black in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, is a nice guy. Sure, he shot a defenseless old lady to death at close range with a hunting rifle, but it was just that one time and, well, we all make mistakes.
That’s the strange attitude affected by residents of Carthage, Texas, the tiny, insular town where the real-life Bernie Tiede murdered the real-life Marjorie Nugent in November 1996. In fact, Carthage would have been a more appropriate title for Linklater’s oddly charming film. Viewers hoping for any real insight into Tiede’s character or his volatile relationship with Nugent will be disappointed; Bernie relates the facts of the pair’s ill-fated encounter, but doesn’t have much to say about it. Instead, Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the 1998 magazine article on which the film is based, are more concerned with a cinematic biopsy of life in a small Southern town. Just as the people of Carthage are conflicted about Tiede—they gossip about his supposed homosexuality even as they gush about his good nature—the filmmakers are appropriately ambivalent about their subject. Bernie is simultaneously scathing and affectionate in its appraisal of the absolute weirdness of small-town life in the South.
Linklater literally tells us what we’re in for in Bernie’s opening frames. In a twangy homage to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a title card announces that “What you’re fixin’ to see is a true story.” Bernie is equal parts narrative and mockumentary, with a parade of Carthage citizens giving us the skinny on Bernie in a series of Christopher Guest-style talking-head interviews. Some of the monologues are scripted and delivered by professional actors, but sometimes Linklater simply puts the real deal on camera and gives actual Carthage residents a chance to editorialize a bit about the scandal that put their town, however briefly, in the national spotlight. It’s usually impossible to tell the difference.
When we first meet Bernie, he’s addressing a group of funeral-services students about the finer points of cosmeticizing a corpse. Bernie is meticulous and compassionate in his treatment of the cadaver—qualities he will soon turn toward the many grieving widows of Carthage, his newly adopted hometown. Bernie is kind and charming, and it isn’t long before he’s “the most popular man in town.” Not even Nugent, the wealthiest and most hated woman in Carthage, is immune to Bernie’s appeal, and the two soon strike up an unlikely friendship that has everyone in town rethinking their assumptions about Bernie’s proclivities.
What begins as a sweet, if off-kilter, May-December romance evolves into a strange tale of crime and punishment when Bernie murders Marjorie for no apparent reason and then proceeds to give away the millions of dollars she’s hoarded over the decades, distributing the money among the citizens of Carthage and keeping almost none for himself. When Marjorie’s body is discovered nine months later, Bernie’s conservative, Bible-thumping friends and neighbors are more concerned with keeping him out of jail than with seeking justice for the murder of an 81-year-old woman who was almost universally despised.
If it sounds a bit heartless, Bernie is anything but. The Southern-fried vernacular and down-home clichés are spread so thick that the film occasionally veers into parody and plays like a particularly strange episode of Mama’s Family, but Bernie treats its main characters with surprising warmth and gentleness. Neither the film’s mean-spirited victim, played wonderfully and often wordlessly by a pucker-faced Shirley MacLaine, nor its titular murderer is overtly vilified, even when they’re doing awful things to each other. If Bernie isn’t condemned, though, neither is he exonerated. In one of the film’s many nods to its own ambiguity, Linklater takes us straight from Marjorie’s onscreen murder to Bernie’s enthusiastic performance in a community theater production of The Music Man, a play about a charlatan with a knack for conning entire towns. For better or worse, Linklater never lets us make up our mind about Bernie.
Bernie is driven by a trio of rock-solid performance. Besides Black and MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey—who somehow manages to keep his shirt on throughout the entire film—gives a fine and very funny performance as Danny Buck Davidson, a grandstanding district attorney who sees himself as a Bufurd Pusser-like crimefighter even though he spends his days arresting deadbeat dads and rousting small-time meth cookers. The real star, though, is the town itself—a strange, candy-colored repository of Southern Gothic weirdness and social contradictions that even lifelong residents will never really understand. Even as the bizarrely comedic tragedy plays out between Bernie and Marjorie, it’s Carthage’s chatty, twangy Greek chorus of townsfolk that takes center stage. m