As a native Texan, director Richard Linklater can probably get away with saying more -- both positive and negative -- about his home state. This is a good thing, in my estimation, because, it seems to me, there are plenty of interesting things to say about Texas, but relatively few filmmakers with the courage, care and sense of humor to pull it off deftly.
Texas is as much the star of Bernie as Jack Black, who plays the titular character Bernie Tiede, and given the incredibly-strange-but-true tale Linklater sets out to tell, this simple fact came as quite the surprise.
The real-life Bernie Tiede is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for the 1998 murder of widow Marjorie Nugent, and it's the bizarre circumstances of that murder that earned it the Hollywood treatment. The middle-aged Tiede, a mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, befriended Nugent after her husband died and left her with a small fortune. Nugent, who is played by the superb Shirley MacLaine here, is almost universally reviled in Carthage; her neighbors, and even her family, have good reason to dislike her. She's just plain mean, as the interviews with real Carthage natives dotted throughout the film hammer home.
Tiede -- his motivations never entirely clear -- looks past her nastiness and becomes her companion, confidant and personal assistant. Bernie manages her life -- the demands of running every conceivable errand for her eventually forcing him to quit his job as assistant funeral director. It's a mostly thankless job, but it isn't without its perks. Access to Nugent's fortune enables Bernie to take extravagant vacations (always with Nugent) and engage in plenty of random acts of philanthropy around Carthage. For slivers of time, he gets to live the kind of cultured life that isn't possible for him or most of the other townsfolk.
Over time, those slivers seem fewer and farther between -- their gradual disappearance eventually driving the cheery Tiede to kill Nugent. As if a Platonic friendship between a middle-aged closeted gay man and a crotchety, bitchy heiress wasn't weird enough, things get really odd when the panicked Tiede decides to stuff Nugent's corpse in a meat freezer and then is able to conceal her death for months while still accessing her fortune.
The people of Carthage tend to ignore things that they find unpleasant. This is why Tiede's obvious homosexuality is never really addressed directly. And it's why no one asks more than a few token questions when Mrs. Nugent isn't seen for weeks and weeks. Ignoring things, of course, doesn't make them go away, and so Tiede's ghastly deed is eventually exposed. But even then Tiede, who confesses to the crime straight away, enjoys the support of many an apologist in town, so much so that Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McCounaghey), the prosecutor tasked with putting him away, successfully has his trial moved out of town.
Tiede makes for a fascinating character study. Linklater and Black effectively turn him into a real-life Raskolnikov. It's hard to say enough about Black's performance, especially because a plain examination of the facts here reveal a pretty grim and much more coldly calculated reality for Tiede's part. But again, I was even more interested in the Carthiginians orbiting Bernie -- their clear adoration for him and the ease with which they are willing to forgive his sins.
Bernie couldn't have happened where I live. It could have only happened in a place like Carthage. That it did is almost unbelievable -- an affirmation that truth often really is stranger than fiction.