It may be true that everyone has a breaking point and everyone has a dark side. These are possible lessons to take away from Bernie, a semi-documentary tragi-comedy, set in a small town in southern Texas. Then again, it may be that Bernie Tiede, the protagonist of this story, had spent so much of his life trying to be nice that some kind of crack-up was inevitable.
Was Bernie ever as nice as he seemed to all the inhabitants in Carthage, TX, pop. 6,780? The many citizens who are interviewed for this film have no doubt whatsoever. Bernie Tiede, played by Jack Black, was the sweetest, nicest, most helpful, generous and considerate man ever known in this small community. Bernie was a legend, a God-fearing pillar of the Church – until he put four bullets in the back of old Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), the meanest woman in town.
Perhaps it was the real Bernie that pulled the trigger, and the make-believe Bernie that spent all his time consoling the bereaved, helping the local theatrical society, buying gifts, lending money at no interest, assisting people with their tax forms, and doing countless good deeds. At the end of this film we are no closer to the truth than we were at the beginning. Bernie is an enigma, and a fascinating subject for a movie.
By profession, Bernie was an assistant funeral director, who took his duties so seriously he would visit grieving relatives afterwards with gifts and bunches of flowers. On one of these occasions, he turns up at the door of Marjorie Nugent, widow of the local bank-owner, and probably the richest woman in Carthage. Little by little, Bernie and Marjorie become friends. They go to concerts, and on trips together. Marjorie has all the money, Bernie has the savoir faire. They fly first-class, stay at top hotels, eat at expensive restaurants.
Naturally, there is speculation about the nature of their relationship, but Bernie is so nice nobody seems to worry that he is living it up on Marjorie’s money. He’s so nice, they don’t even care if he’s gay – a big concession in small-town Texas!
Meanwhile, Marjorie is nothing but an old bitch. Her own family hate her, and have unsuccessfully sued her for money. Every citizen of Carthage has a bad word for Mrs. Nugent. They sympathise with poor Bernie, who is now at her beck and call. Her importunate demands eat into all Bernie’s other activities. He has to work part-time at the funeral parlour, his theatre rehearsals are interrupted by calls and demands. Finally, one day, bang! Seemingly in a trance he picks up a gun and lets her have it.
If only Bernie had called the cops and confessed his moment of madness. Instead, a quick consultation with the Lord gives him the idea of pretending Marjorie is still alive. He pulls off the deception for nine months, because Marjorie had no other friends, and spoke to no-one apart from her stock-broker, who had grown increasingly suspicious of her constant companion.
During this post-mortem period Bernie uses Marjorie’s money for more good deeds, on a lavish scale. When he is finally brought to justice, he tearfully confesses. The last act sees him in court, with the trial having been moved from Carthage to San Augustine, 45 miles down the road.
District Attorney, Danny Buck – another great role for Matthew McConaughey – has demanded the change of venue because he knows it is impossible for Bernie to get a fair trial in Carthage. Everyone loves Bernie too much to convict him. He didn’t do it, they say. And if he did do it, she had it comin’.
The DA’s strategy is to portray Bernie as a high-living silvertail snob, who even knows how to correctly pronounce the name of the musical, Les Miserables. The jury, as characterised by one Carthage resident, are nothing but a bunch of brain-dead, dirt-poor, redneck slobs, with an ingrained hatred of art and education. Guess the result.
Bernie is a film that leaves us pondering the nature of justice, crime and punishment. Jack Black is brilliant in a role that takes him out of his usual comic mould and requires some sustained character acting. In Black’s portrayal, Bernie is relentlessly nice, but always slightly ambiguous.
For director, Richard Linklater, Bernie continues an unpredictable career trajectory that has zig-zagged between low-budget indie films, animations, off-beat romantic comedies and rock music fables. It is no easier to classify this movie than it is to classify Bernie Tiede himself. Beloved murderer, gold-digging philanthropist, a solitary man with time for everyone: this could only be a true story. Bernie is too unlikely for fiction.
Bernie, USA, rated M, 104 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 18, 2012