In the real-life case that inspired Richard Linklater’s black comedy Bernie, the following facts are undisputed: In November 1996, Bernard Tiede, a 39-year-old assistant funeral director in the town of Carthage, Texas, shot his frequent companion, 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, four times in the back. He confessed as much. Over their five-year relationship, Nugent had given Tiede progressively more access to her fortune, and she ultimately revised her will to make him the sole benefactor. In the cold light of day—and certainly to the jury, which sentenced Tiede to life in prison—this was an open-and-shut case of embezzlement and murder. Motives clear, confession in place, all evidence in support.
Yet in looking into the case for his article “Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas,” Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth got a curious response from the people of Carthage: They didn’t believe Tiede did it. And in the unlikely event that Tiede did kill her, the miserable old battleaxe had it coming anyway. In fact, sentiment for Tiede was so strong in Carthage that the district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, had the trial moved to another town, because he was convinced no jury in his hometown would vote to convict. Tiede was too sweet, too generous with his time and Nugent’s money—and perhaps, it was indelicately speculated, too effeminate to shoot a gun straight. Tiede was not the deer-hunting type, which carries certain connotations around those parts.
Linklater drew from Hollandsworth’s article and notes—the two share a screenplay credit—and he sinks his teeth into a hell of a yarn, a true-crime story where the real mystery isn’t what happened, but the bizarre context for the murder and the collective madness of a town that couldn’t accept it at face value. The tone resembles the ripped-from-the-headlines hysteria of Errol Morris’ 2010 documentary Tabloid, but instead of the newspapers spreading gossip of dubious provenance, it’s the people of Carthage, a jolly little beehive buzzing with theories, denials, and unsubstantiated rumors. Linklater threads a thin needle here, because for all the lurid chicanery in Tabloid—Kidnapping! Bondage! Mormon underwear!—at least everyone came out of it alive. The Tiede case was murder, which makes it much harder to find the comic absurdity surrounding it without seeming merely callous.
Though the lightness of Bernie can get disconcerting at times, even cartoonish, Linklater approaches the story with a bemused curiosity that seems about right under the circumstances. His biggest innovation—and the crux of Hollandsworth’s piece—is dealing with the gallery of Carthage residents who knew Tiede and Marjorie and can’t bring themselves to accept the truth of what happened. Since none of them can be proper characters in the story, Linklater treats the “gossips” in mock documentary style, having them comment on the action as it unfolds. This makes Bernie sound like a Christopher Guest film, but while the sound bites are often hilarious, with their dishy inferences and Deep South colloquialisms, Bernie uses them to give context to Tiede and Nugent’s relationship and to the mores of small-town life.
After providing Jack Black with by far his best showcase to date in 2003’s School Of Rock, Linklater again gets the most out of Black’s devilish grin and zeal for musical performance. Black plays Tiede as the townspeople see him: a friendly, exuberant, civic-minded churchgoer who comforted the aggrieved, sang beautifully in the choir, and tolerated the meanest woman in town for as long as he could. Shirley MacLaine, with those old comic chops still very much intact, turns Nugent into a dark force of resistance to Tiede’s cheery disposition. As Tiede becomes more of a presence in Nugent’s life, joining her on trips overseas and eventually becoming a kind of manservant, the two engage in a battle of wills that changes both of them. Tiede’s devotion wears down Nugent’s defenses and brings some measure of happiness to her twilight years, while Nugent’s sour, controlling personality suffocates her companion until he finally snaps.
The voice of reason in Bernie belongs to Matthew McConaughey as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who listens, flabbergasted, to his constituents’ denials, then says, in his best Wooderson drawl, “Now, ya’ll know that Bernie confessed, don’t you?” Hollandsworth and Linklater make these denials the central joke of Bernie and mine them for everything they’re worth, with the deeper implication that faith trumps fact in conservative towns like Carthage. But the townspeople’s perspective figures greatly into how Bernie draws the character: Looking at the evidence from afar, it would be easy enough to see Tiede as a slickster and a fraud who saw an opportunity to bilk an old lady out of her money. The reality the film appears to support, with help from the Carthage chorus, is that of a fundamentally sweet and decent man who put others before himself and bowed to a moment of weakness.
As a black comedy, Bernie could use a little more snap; the genre of Ace In The Hole and Dr. Strangelove calls for a satirical conviction that runs counter to Linklater’s relaxed wit. But Black’s typically robust performance picks up some of the slack, and there are other compensations, too, in the complexity of Tiede and Nugent’s relationship and the original concept of a town as a collective organism, with its own values and its own sense of right and wrong. At trial, Bernie Tiede pleaded temporary insanity; the Carthage of Bernie could plead likewise.