Bernie, a morality tale
In 1996, the citizens of Carthage, Texas, refused to believe that Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) had murdered Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). While they agreed that if anyone had it coming, it was Nugent, picturing her much younger, constant companion blowing her away with a shotgun was unthinkable. According to those who knew him, Tiede was one of the most gentle, considerate and kind people they had ever met. Many of them suspected he was gay, but that was something these Texans could brush aside; all the good he did for the community outweighed any peculiarities he might have had.
The murder of Nugent is not the true focus of Richard Linklater’s fascinating and entertaining film Bernie. It concerns itself rather with how we can be wrong in the way we perceive ourselves and others and how even good men can be pushed to committing horrible deeds. We often provide ourselves with a security blanket woven of hollow assurances when we proclaim that we truly know someone, when we really don’t.
Still, had the citizens of Carthage admitted that Tiede was capable of murder they probably still would have been shocked. As the town’s most popular mortician (not as dubious a distinction as you might think), he was known to go out of his way to help citizens prepare for their eternal rest, never looking to sell them anything they didn’t need. As one of his acquaintances said, “Bernie had the ability to make the world seem kinder.”
More curious than the fact that Tiede killed Nugent is that they struck up a relationship at all. Miserly, withdrawn and hated throughout town, she was sure to die alone, having alienated everyone in her family. Yet, Tiede brought something out of her, inexplicably giving her a will to live and, before you know it, the pair were taking lavish trips abroad and seen dining together regularly in public. Tongues wagged, but neither cared. It says something that citizens were more concerned about whether they’d been intimate than whether Tiede actually killed Nugent.
As told by Linklater, the story has a degree of whimsy that belies the more serious matters at its core. Citizens of Carthage who knew both Tiede and Nugent appear in the film, giving witness to all they had seen and heard. This device lends a post-modern authenticity to the movie that validates its theme. None of them seem overly concerned that Tiede may have committed a capital offense. In their eyes, it was one dark spot on an otherwise pristine ledger of good deeds. Who among us haven’t erred now and then?
As Tiede, Black is a revelation. I always suspected he was capable of great things and this film proves it. Genuine throughout, he allows us a pathway to understanding this complex person. At once kind, we also see Tiede go on irresponsible spending sprees with Nugent’s money as well as hide his benefactor’s death for more than eight months. Black never wavers throughout, giving an honest portrayal of a man acting with the best of intentions if not the most prescient view on the events he was embroiled in. MacLaine gives the sort of performance we’ve come to expect from the veteran actress. That we pity her because of a streak of behavior she seemingly can’t control is a testament to the performer’s continued effectiveness.
We can’t help but find ourselves on Tiede’s side once the credits roll. Yes, he seems like a nice enough guy and he would be my mortician of choice. But is that enough to excuse him of murder? If the citizens of Carthage would have had their way, I think that would have. Good thing the local district attorney, a thankless job in this case, was there to prevent them from going down this slippery slope.
Contact Chuck Koplinski at firstname.lastname@example.org.