Page to Screen: Bernie (2011)

based on “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth


While my parents would frame themselves as the adventerous ones, what with their travel bugs and all, I like to think that I, in fact, am the more adventorous one, because I try things pretty much sight-unseen. If I had a dollar for every time my parents muttered darkly under their breath as we seek out something I’ve selected but ended up enjoying themselves once we got there (the recently decommissioned Science Fiction Museum, for one), I’d have enough to keep me in cheap nail polish. And thus it was on a Netflix night with my mother, as I decided that we were either going to watch The Queen of Versailles or Bernie.

Bernie tells the incredible (and incredibly true) story of Bernie Tiede. An assistant mortician in the small town of Carthage, Texas, Bernie is the nicest, sweetest man you could ever meet, and the town of Carthage loves him for his generosity of spirit. When millionaire Marjorie Nugent’s husband dies, Bernie checks on her the same way he checks on all of the local widows, despite Marjorie’s famed meanness and tight-fistedness. The two eventually become friends, but without anyone else in her life, Marjorie becomes so controlling of Bernie that he’s essentially trapped. And then Bernie murders her. It’s a cut and dry case, in the eyes of Danny Buck Davidson, the local DA—Bernie confesses and everything. But Danny Buck worries that Bernie won’t get a fair trial—because Carthage just loves him too much to send him to prison.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect out of Bernie, but a semi-documentary wasn’t it. Interspersed with dramatic scenes are interviews of Carthage residents who were around during the actual murder and ensuing investigation, although their responses are semi-scripted. It gives Bernie a wonderful sort of authenicity to see actual people in a film. As inured in television and film as we are, I think we forget that everyone who appears onscreen in a film is carefully curated and styled. But the residents of Carthage and the various extras are as East Texas as they come, with all the Southern sass that implies. It makes it feel small and cozy, even if the title cards (which ask the questions the residents are responding to) can feel a little awkward at times. It’s a rare treat to see a movie where Matthew McCaughney looks like the odd one out.

Black humor is usually very sharp, but Bernie takes the tact of being incredibly gentle. For a film centered around the inherent comedy of a sweet and pudgy man shooting an elderly woman in the back, the humor is instead derived from the incongruity of Carthage’s reaction to the murder, not the murder itself. In fact, it’s played lightly, effectively, and discretely in the film, with only the cut to the next scene generating laughs. Bernie’s sexuality is in question by the residents, but it’s never mocked. (In “Dr. Don”, Peter Hessler argues that small towns are more tolerant than larger towns, because everybody has to pull together, so alienating someone is actually damaging to you, especially when that person is as generous as Bernie was.) Instead, we watch Danny Buck, exsparated, remind people that there is an actual dead person in this picture, even if she was a mean and bitter old woman. (Bernie’s boss theorizes that Marjorie actually infected Bernie with her evil.) This means that Bernie makes no damning declaration to the world, but it also means that you get to see small-town America in a way that’s patronizing to no one, which, as a Southern woman, I quite appreciate.

I’ve never been a wild fan of Jack Black, but he’s quite good here, keeping Bernie quiet, sweet, and human more than anything else, taking the discovery of the murder in stride and turning himself in immediately (after cops pick him up while he’s delivering a speech to a local baseball team). Shirley Maclaine makes a suitably nasty Marjorie, but she’s in the film very little. And for all of McConaughey’s visual disparity (even in a wig and unflattering clothes, you can tell he’s from Hollywood), his interpretation of Danny Buck is subtle but hilarious—he’s convinced that he’s starring in an episode of Law and Order. Any time Danny Buck talks to a reporter, it’s amazing. And, of course, the residents are all pitch-perfect and delightfully East Texas, giving this film a sensibility I don’t often see on film.

Bottom line: For a black comedy, Bernie is incredibly gentle, letting the humor derive not from the murder but the town’s reaction. The cast turn in quite good performances, but it’s the residents of Carthage that steal the show. Worth a watch.

I watched this film on Netflix Instant.

4 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Bernie (2011)

  1. I’ve actually always liked Jack Black and I love it when usually comedic actors take a serious turn, since a lot of times they usually capture emotions perfectly. I hadn’t heard of this before, but I love the idea of blending in real East Texas residents and creating a hybrid film/documentary. I’m definitely putting this in my Netflix queue. Thanks for the heads up!

  2. I’ve had this in my Netflix queue for a while, thanks to Linda Holmes’s raves on Pop Culture Happy Hour. (Queen of Versailles is in my queue for the same reason.) Glad to hear you enjoyed it. It’s hard to find good movies about the South.

    • Both are really good. My mom has this weird habit of fast-forwarding through movies, and she did that to Queen of Versailles and hated it. I then talked her into watching it at its actual pace, and she ended up really enjoying it. It’s not rubbernecking at this family (okay, maybe a little bit), it’s watching a woman we, as a society, don’t traditionally view as strong discovering her own strength.

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