Usually, when a criminal is convicted of murder, it’s not just the judge and the jury who pass judgment, even if theirs happens to be the one that ultimately matters the most (at least it is without bringing religious beliefs into the equation). There’s a judgement involved initially, for example, which will inform the decisions of whether to charge a suspect in the first place and then subsequently whether to prosecute. A murder is also a matter for society at large to contemplate and – thankfully – 99% people still do actually frown upon the act. If the case is high profile the media may even have their say after a sentence has been passed, and for the most part they will join the average man in the street in condemnation of the murderer. Mistakes can of course be made along the way, tragically, but it’s a comforting moral standard that – most of the time – people are on the same page, which makes the case of Bernard Tiede an intriguing one.
In Carthage, Texas, funeral director Tiede – a well-respected and much-loved member of the community – shot and killed wealthy 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent in 1995, before storing her body in her own freezer for nine months. Having met a few years earlier at the funeral of her husband, Tiede befriended Nugent and accompanied her on trips abroad, though apparently the relationship was purely platonic. When the body was discovered, a guilt-ridden Tiede confessed that he had shot the dowager in the back at point blank range after becoming disappointed at the way she was treating him. Tiede was named as the sole beneficiary in her will prior to the murder, and it has been alleged since that the mortician embezzled around $3 million of Nugent’s money. Despite the confession, many local residents of Carthage struggled to come to terms with the news that Tiede had killed Nugent, such was his popularity and reputation. In fact Bernie was held in such high esteem that the DA, Danny ‘Buck’ Davidson, even had to ask for a rare prosecutorial change of venue in order to secure a fair trial.
Tiede sang in the local church, started scholarships for local students at Panola College, helped elderly residents whenever he could, and even got involved with local youth groups and amateur dramatics, so it’s not difficult to understand why he was so popular, even if he did possibly fund many of these community-minded activities with Nugent’s money. One factor influencing many people’s opinions on the matter, it seems, was the relative unpopularity of Nugent, who had gradually become estranged from her family during her years of friendship with Tiede, and had a reputation as a mean-spirited old lady.
When interviewed, Davidson said that the town of Carthage was ‘split up’ with regards to their opinion of Tiede. Davidson told the Longview News-Journal: ‘People remember him (Tiede) as being real nice and doing nice things, and they’d like my office to go real easy on him. And then, there’s a group that wants no mercy.’ And we all know what that can lead to in the Lone Star state.
The story was picked up by Texas Monthly journalist Skip Hollandsworth, and his 1998 article detailing the killing and the forthcoming trial, Midnight In The Garden Of East Texas, caught the attention of Texan director Richard Linklater. Linklater and Hollandsworth agreed to work on a screenplay with a view to eventually making a film about the story, and the pair actually attended Tiede’s trial in 1999. Despite working on eight different films during the following decade (nine if you count the soon-to-be-released Boyhood, which has been filmed intermittently over a 10-year-period), Linklater’s movie about the murder – Bernie – finally arrived in cinemas in 2011, with Jack Black starring in the title role, Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie Nugent and Matthew McConaughey as District Attorney Davidson.
Linklater’s film is part-mockumentary, with the townsfolk of Carthage freely giving their opinions on the case, Tiede and Nugent in illuminating detail. Some of the townsfolk are played by actors, but the overwhelming majority of people play themselves, and it is nearly impossible to deduce whether they are acting from a script or simply giving their own personal thoughts on matters. This fascinating ‘talking heads’ footage is interspersed with flashbacks of Tiede’s life in Carthage and friendship with Nugent, which results in the pair taking holidays abroad together.
In discussing the murder, the townsfolk contribute heavily to the film’s blackly-comic tone. Many of these interviews contain funny asides or turns of phrase, and they sit very well next to the humour contained in Black’s performance; on several occasions it is necessary to remind yourself that someone was actually slain and then left in a freezer for the best part of a year, in both real life and this movie.
This isn’t a straightforward comedy, by any means. Linklater could easily have satirized the members of the small town, portraying them as rubes or completely blinded by faith, but as a relatively-local man it would seem that he does not appear to have any malicious agenda, and plenty of different voices and opinions are heard.
Bernie is at times a decidedly creepy movie. The principal character is overwhelmingly nice, a peppy fresh-faced man with an apparently simple desire to help others, but there is a cloying oddness about him which is teased out superbly by Black, who met the real Bernie in prison before filming. In public he may be the loudest singer in church, but Tiede is also revealed to be a calculating liar and coldly cynical in the way he implements money-making ideas at the funeral home.
In an excellent attention-grabbing opening we first encounter Tiede in the midst of a lecture on the embalming process, calmly and expertly gluing a fresh cadaver’s eyes shut and clipping still-growing nose hairs in front of a rapt audience. Later on, Bernie imagines seeing Nugent after her death, but Linklater wisely doesn’t overplay this supernatural surprise. (The deleted scenes contained on the DVD reveal that more of these ghostly apparitions were filmed, but the decision to scale them back in the final edited version for effect is a good one.) Similarly in one flatly disturbing scene, in which three college kids have been killed in a car accident, Bernie and his colleagues clear away the bloodied bodies in front of shocked fellow students; in the background the Grim Reaper can be seen pacing up and down, surveying the scene.
Black – who worked with Linklater on the director’s biggest commercial ‘hit’ to date: 2003’s School Of Rock – is very good here, perfectly suited to a role that requires a fair amount of the actor’s seemingly-limitless energy; he appears to relish every single moment spent singing and dancing, but he also performs well in some excellent serious scenes with MacLaine, and I wish the deterioration of their relationship prior to the shooting had been dragged out by another ten minutes or so. As it stands, the shooting of Marjorie feels a little too sudden…but then you could easily argue that most shootings are impulsive and are not pre-meditated. MacLaine is great value as the stony-faced widow who eventually takes Bernie’s goodwill for granted, and her best moments see her barking orders at Bernie, treating him like a dogsbody. McConaughey returned from his acting break with this film and The Lincoln Lawyer in 2011, and while this is nothing more than a slightly-better-than-average performance it’s interesting to watch with the actor’s recent progression in mind.
A Texan, Linklater has made several films set in his home state, and familiarity with the locations and characters has repeatedly led to assured indie productions: the sports fields and teenage hangouts of Dazed and Confused, the strip malls of SubUrbia, and now the church halls and well-kept streets of Bernie. Even more obviously Linklater’s familiarity with the people of Texas means there is a huge amount of warmth toward the townspeople of Carthage, a group of people that many a director could and would have been slightly mean about.
Murder is a subject that seems to draw judgment from all of us, but Bernie is a weirdly non-judgmental movie. It’s a droll comedy that is more concerned with the reaction of an entire town as opposed to the motives of a killer, or even whether there is a ‘real’ Bernie behind the ultra-nice façade, and while there aren’t any belly laughs it is smart and witty. Understandably Hollandsworth’s presence as co-writer gives the film an intriguing, nosy journalistic feel, which works well with the mockumentary format, a simple and novel approach. Despite Black’s Golden Globe nomination it didn’t find a big audience, although notably it has made more money than many of Linklater’s other films, including Dazed and Confused and all three films in the much-loved Before… series. Disappointingly it was released with little fanfare in the UK last April, a year after it first came out in the US, and almost two years after it was made, but it’s another entry in the list of good films made by Linklater; it’s getting quite long now.
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Skip Hollandsworth, Richard Linklater
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Running Time: 104 minutes