Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, Shirley MacLaine, Gary Teague, Larry Jack Dotson, Ben Bachelder. Written by Richard Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth, based on Hollandsworth’s article in Texas Monthly.
In August, 1996, the body of 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent was discovered in a freezer sealed with duct tape in her Carthage, Texas home. Assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, her friend and companion of the past half-decade, confessed to the murder, telling police that he shot her four times in the back; over the next nine months, he attempted to cover up the murder through smoke and mirrors, until the body was finally found.
It seemed like an open and shut case. Tiede claimed that Mrs. Nugent was controlling and abusive, and that he shot her in a fit of rage, a defense that might have helped had he gone to police straight away instead of trying to cover his tracks and embezzling her funds over the course of the next year.
But Bernie Tiede was also the nicest guy you’d ever meet, a beloved member of the community who went to church every Sunday and donated to local charities. Members of the small town seemed incredulous that he could actually commit murder, and even if he did, it seemed that no one in Carthage was willing to convict him for it.
Skip Hollandsworth detailed the events surrounding Tiede’s trial in a 1998 article for Texas Monthly (Midnight in the Garden of East Texas), a story that was fascinating because no one bothered to search for Nugent for until nine months after her murder, and because the small town seemed to rally around the confessed murderer after he was caught (and they’re still rallying – see freebernie.org).
Director Richard Linklater (Before Midnight) used the Hollandsworth article as the basis for Bernie, and co-authored the script with the writer. The resulting film is a fascinating portrait of both the actual events in the case – Tiede’s bizarre mother-son relationship with Nugent, and the dynamic that led to her murder – and of the small-town insider’s view that led to Bernie’s martyrdom.
In the film, Tiede is played by comedian Jack Black, coming off Kung Fu Panda 2 and Gulliver’s Travels. The actor is a revelation in a rare dramatic turn; the film has an uphill battle in convincing us of siding with the murderer – or at least making the ambiguity felt by the Carthage residents believable – but Black makes it work with a winning performance that garnered year-end accolades last winter.
He’s aided by two supporting performances that are strikingly realized. Shirley MacLaine is both oddly sympathetic – you could almost imagine her being your own grandmother – and frightening as the cold, manipulative Mrs. Nugent. And Matthew McConaughey, in one of the films that started his career resurgence (see also: The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, Magic Mike), is a real hoot as Danny Buck, the district attorney with a thick Texas twang fighting against odds to get a conviction against Tiede.
While the three leads dominate the film, Bernie is aided to no end by documentary-style interviews with Carthage townspeople that feel like they were plucked off the street to share their thoughts on Bernie and the case. That’s probably because they were picked off the street: while they may not be actual Carthage residents sharing unscripted thoughts on Tiede, there’s that uncanny small-town Americana vibe throughout that lends the film an stark authenticity.
Bernie was shot in fall 2010 before playing the festival circuit in 2011 and receiving a release stateside in April 2012. Its theatrical release in the Czech Republic is mighty belated (the film has been widely available on the home market for the past year, and Linklater’s subsequent feature, Before Midnight, has already seen a wide release) but a welcome one: this is a fascinating true crime story with some eye-opening performances from the principal cast.
Also opening this week:
- Donšajni (showtimes | IMDb), the latest film from director Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, I Served the King of England). Screening in Czech, but you can catch it with English subtitles at Cinema City Slovanský dům.
- Metallica: Through the Never (showtimes | IMDb), a 3D film with a fictional storyline set at one of the band’s concerts. Screening exclusively at IMAX before hitting other cinemas next week.
- Omar (showtimes | IMDb), a Israeli thriller from director Hany Abu-Assad that won a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes film fest. Screening in Arabic/Hebrew with Czech subtitles.