Those who don’t believe that truth is stranger than fiction have never visited Carthage, Texas, a charming little town that in the mid-90s became the scene of a Southern Gothic, true crime media circus that involved a mean, old rich lady, a beloved local eccentric, an accusation of murder, and all the local gossip you could fit on your plate. The entire sordid mess was adapted into a stellar docu-drama called Bernie, one of the most under-rated movies of 2011.
Bernie Tiede is Carthage’s assistant mortician, where he shows a real gift for the empathic side of the mortuary business. Possessed with seemingly endless sensitivity, Bernie always knows the right thing to say to comfort those in sorrow, investing emotional energy into every service. When not assuaging the sorrow of the bereaved, he sings in the local church choir, performs in community theatre, runs fundraisers, and is known around town as a guy impossible not to love. Sure, he’s described by more than a few townspeople as a bit light in the loafers, on account of his being a fairly effeminate dandy, but that doesn’t stop folks from loving Bernie anyway. His relentless friendliness simply wins people over.
In 1990, Bernie befriends Marjorie Nugent at her husband’s funeral, which Bernie managed. The widow Nugent was known throughout Carthage as extremely wealthy thanks to her husband’s oil fortune, but she was herself painfully stingy, perpetually suspicious, and just plain mean. Once her husband died, she didn’t have a friend in Carthage. Maybe that’s why Bernie befriended her, the townsfolk opined. Or maybe it was because Marjorie was loaded. Either way, Bernie and Marjorie soon became inseparable, and by 1993, Bernie had quit his job to manage Marjorie’s business affairs full-time (having been named Marjorie’s sole heir, to the chagrin of her son and grandchildren), as well as serve as her travel companion. But there was a darker side to their relationship; she could be cruel to Bernie, savagely berating him and demanding his constant attention. Finally, one day in 1995, Bernie had decided enough was enough and shot old Marjorie in the back, cleaned her body, and stuffed it in a big freezer in the garage. For nine months, he managed to deflect questions about Marjorie’s absence, all while generously spending Marjorie’s money on gifts to others around town (including the local church). But eventually, the truth came out, Bernie confessed, and after a sensational trial, was sentenced to life in prison. So long, Bernie.
This is a true crime story that isn’t about whodunit, but whydunit. From the opening frames, we know something has gone seriously amiss with Bernie and Marjorie and Carthage, and for the rest of the movie, we get a semi-fictionalized account of who Bernie and Marjorie were, how their relationship developed, and how Bernie came to decide to murder her. This is where the real enjoyment of the movie lies; in seeing how the whole thing unfurls. And while the overall story is a little thin, what makes it work are the recurring cutaways to a chorus of town gossips, some of whom are actual Carthage townspeople playing themselves, who offer their take on things. Everybody has their own take on Bernie and Marjorie, who did what to whom and why, and what role Marjorie’s millions played into all of it. And while all of these stories differ and go into their own strange tangential territories, collectively, they provide a kind of collective portrait that explains why Bernie decided to kill somebody one day.
While the semi-documentary aspect of Bernie gives this movie the veritas and color it needs to make a story this strange work, the real stars of the show are its cast of actors, each of whom turns in a knockout performance. Shirley MacLaine does a very convincing job of providing us with enough reason to believe the locals who say that yeah, Bernie shouldn’t have committed murder, but you know, maybe Marjorie kind of deserved to die. Matthew McConaughey puts his Texas drawl to splendid use as local district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, who suspects Bernie is hiding something, and who realizes that if he’s going to secure a prosecution on this, he’s gonna have to move the darned trial 50 miles out of town. How can these people still love the guy after he murdered an old lady? The frustration McConaughey puts into Davidson would be hilarious if it wasn’t channeling the very real perplexity of a very real prosecutor handling a very real crime. But the gold star belongs to Jack Black as Bernie Tiede, who turns in some of his finest work by truly inhabiting a guy who seems simple and easily written off, but in fact is a bit more complicated than anybody ever expected. He portrays Tiede artfully, neither glorifying him nor reducing him to caricature, creating a portrait of a strange man who might have been motivated equally by altruism and greed, and who ended up biting off a whole lot more than he could chew when he charmed his way into Marjorie Nugent’s life. There are plenty of folks who find Black annoying or who dislike his goofier movies. They should all give him a second chance for this one, however. This one, he nails.
The moment of truth for most would come when Bernie seems almost grateful to be caught, for now his fears of being discovered have ended. But the real moment of truth has to be from the first act of the movie, when one of the townspeople gives a two-minute overview of the different parts of Texas, to explain where Carthage fits in to it all. It’s such a charming and down-home take on the state that it lets you know that the murder story to follow is not going to be your average tale of bloodletting. This is something worth brewing some lemonade for, because this here is gonna be a story.