Bernie Film Review – a true darkly comic tale that’s stranger than fiction

words Tom Smalley

Director Richard Linklater and actor Jack Black team up for the first time since their blockbusting mega-hit School of Rock to bring us Bernie – a dark comedy based on perhaps the most absurd true events ever committed to film.

In August 1997, police found the body of a Mrs Marjorie Nugent wrapped in a sheet in the bottom of a freezer unit in her garage; there were four gunshot wounds in her back.

Meanwhile, the man who had killed the woman (nine months earlier it turned out) and carefully packed her corpse away amongst an assortment of frozen groceries, was preparing to take a little league baseball team and their parents out to dinner. He could just as easily have been overseeing one of the local youth theatre productions he often organised, or singing Amazing Grace at the funeral of one of the town’s recently departed, or helping someone out with tax returns (or whatever it was they might have needed help with). Because, to all intents and purposes, this man was the very definition of a ‘Good Samaritan’ and, for this reason, the residents of the small Texas town of Carthage had all but fallen in love with Bernie Tiede.

In the months that followed his arrest, and in spite of the gruesome murder which he was not only accused of but had already confessed to, the loyal community rallied around Bernie; church congregations ‘prayed for Bernie’, locals visited him in prison with cupcakes and a group of supporters even started a fundraising campaign to raise the $1.5 million needed to meet his bail bond. This prompted the local district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, to increase the bond up to $2.7 million and, famously, after feeling unsure that a local jury would convict Bernie at all (despite the undeniable evidence held against him), move the trial to another town and jurisdiction altogether to ensure an impartial jury.

However, there was another reason for the townsfolk’s unquestionable loyalty and spirited defence of Bernie Tiede. Not only did the vast majority of Carthage adore Bernie, but they also hated Marjorie Nugent, whose reputation as a rude, arrogant and twisted old lady preceded her. Some locals would even openly joke that it was only a matter of time that she were killed and that if it hadn’t been Bernie if would’ve been someone else!

The idea that you are in a sense defined by the opinions people hold of you is demonstrated to its horrific extreme by the town of Carthage’s adoring love for Bernie and simultaneous hatred of Mrs Nugent, to the point where the legal system is itself in jeopardy. This is the comic undercurrent of Linklater’s Bernie, which is bolstered and delivered by a superb performance from Black as the titular anti-hero, as well as Shirley MacLaine’s convincing and terrifying turn as Mrs Nugent and Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck Davidson.

Much of the dialogue has been directly lifted from the 1998 Texas Monthly article ‘Mystery in the Garden of East Texas’, written by Skip Hollandsworth (who also co-wrote the screenplay), which heavily featured quotes from the people of Carthage and itself reads like a black comedy script. Lines such as “I don’t understand why Bernie didn’t put her in one of his little airplanes and fly her over the Gulf of Mexico and kick her out,” delivered straight to camera, with absolutely no emotion, seem too absurd to be true. But, in actual fact, they are just that as many of the interviewees in the film are genuine Carthage residents who chose to feature in the film as themselves. And it’s this constant and very dark subtext that makes Bernie work. A woman has died and nobody, save perhaps McConaughey’s character, seems to care in the slightest; neither do they attempt to feign an ounce of respect, pity or good taste in the wake of her murder. It sounds horrible, but nevertheless it is darkly funny in a kind of ‘should I be ashamed at how loud I’m laughing at this?’ sort of way. Think about how you felt the first time you watched Borat, but with the added guilt of knowing that the scenes depicted are ‘true events’, and you’re halfway there.

Although it has been universally received with open arms by the press, even being named as the ‘best reviewed film of 2012’ by review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, Bernie returned a less unanimous verdict from the people of Carthage itself. Some residents loved the film and, as I mentioned, many even starred in it. However, others have questioned whether the version of events depicted in the film is entirely fair to the dead woman at its core, given that the source material is essentially the culmination of the rumours and gossip of the townspeople (to whom the deceased was estranged in life), as well as interviews with Bernie, the man who killed her. Most prominently, DA Danny Buck Davidson himself has publicly stated that, in his opinion, the film fails to tell Mrs Nugent’s side of the story and, because of this, is not historically accurate.

As Davidson, or at least McConaughey playing Davidson, says in the film: “It’s almost as if everyone has already forgotten that an elderly lady was shot to death.” I have to admit that, although I left having enjoyed Bernie immensely, this thought stayed with me long after the screening, and I’m still not entirely sure whether I feel like Linklater has crossed a line or not. But then again, maybe that’s the whole idea.

The Bernie film is showing in selected cinemas now

words Tom Smalley


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