Director: Richard Linklater
Writers: Richard Linklater (screenplay), Skip Hollandsworth (screenplay)
Matthew McConaughey Danny Buck
Jack Black Bernie Tiede
Shirley MacLaine Marjorie Nugent
Rick Dial Don Leggett
Grant James Mr. Estes
Tommy G. Kendrick Larry Brumley
Sonny Carl Davis Lonnie (as Sonny Davis)
Mona Lee Fultz Cashier
Brandon Smith Sheriff Huckabee
Ira Bounds Cursing gossip
Brady Coleman ... Scrappy Holmes
If you’ve heard of the Bernie Tiede case, you already know the outcome of the story. For those needing some reference, here are a few links. The top link from Texas Monthly is what actually drew director, Richard Linklater, to the case and won the author the chance to co-write the film’s screenplay.
Magazine Article That Inspired The Movie
Wikipedia: Bernie Tiede
Briefly, the story’s about a young assistant undertaker named Bernie Tiede, who was quite popular in the East Texas town of Carthage particularly with the blue-haired ladies. He befriends a widowed heiress Marjorie Nugent, who was at best, a pill. As their relationship, develops, Nugent is more and more dependent on Bernie and ties him down to her, excluding him from the town residents, who mostly like him very much. This exclusion and her actions are the marks of a domestic abuser. Bernie snaps, shoots Mrs. Nugent in the back four times and kills her, then stuffs her in a freezer where he kept the cold-hearted woman on ice for nine months.
Murder isn’t funny, the real Danny Buck, prosecutor in this case asserts, and I have to agree with him. But, I promise you that if your sense of humor runs to the dark side, you will be laughing throughout Bernie. No, I couldn’t laugh at the crime. It’s the East Texas phrasing, the way the entire cast plays their parts, and the utter weirdness of small towns that brings the laughter forward.
Real residents of the town of Carthage are up on screen talking about the aspects of the case throughout the film. They’re saying things like, “Bernie made us look beautiful. It’s a shame we were dead and couldn’t see it.”
Shirley MacLaine never disappoints when she plays a cranky old woman. Her Ouiser from Steel Magnolias describes Marjorie Nugent pretty well. “The only reason people are nice to me is because I have more money than God.” What else can one say about a woman whose own family sued her?
Jack Black is masterful as Tiede. When I initially saw the first news reports of the crime, I recalled the young undertaker’s mannerisms and Black’s got them down. Just so you could see how closely Jack Black represents Bernie Tiede, here’s an interview of the man himself from prison:
Bernie is one of those films you’ll enjoy if you’re amused by Texas Southern humor and gossipy small towns. If your sense of humor doesn’t extend to the dark, like me you won’t be laughing at the spots which smack too much of schadenfreude. Ignore the portions of the audience who are laughing and concentrate on the sociological aspects of the Tiede case. What extreme abuse could bring a young man raised in Christian kindness and Southern chivalry to shoot a woman in the back? Who would the town side with—a woman who lorded her riches over them or a young man who spent the widow’s money lavishly to make their town a better place, yet taking none of it for himself?
For my personal ranking. Bernie was definitely worth the matinee price; however, I doubt I’d own the film when it comes out on DVD. The case is interesting and good for a laugh, but I don’t think I can see the murder again. The case is real. Lovable or not, a woman died. And a man who still cannot answer why he did it will spend a life sentence in a Texas prison.
If you ask Tiede, he’d tell you he regretted the crime and he wishes every day of his life he hadn’t done it. I don’t regret for one minute seeing this delightful film. Whether you’re watching for the hometown humor or the case itself, you’re going to enjoy yourself.
Rebecca McFarland Kyle, July 2012