04/27/2012 08:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

ReThink Review: Bernie -- Murder on Ice

The poster for Richard Linklater's dark comedy Bernie claims it tells "a story so unbelievable it must be true." That's because Bernie is the true story of Bernie Tiede (played in the film by Jack Black), an assistant funeral home director who befriended and later murdered a wealthy, ornery widow named Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) by shooting her in the back and hiding her body in a deep freezer. But instead of stealing Marge's money and leaving town, Bernie stayed in Carthage, buying people lavish gifts and donating to charities until he was arrested and sent to prison. And instead of calling for his death (as one might expect in execution-happy Texas), the town of Carthage rallied in support of Bernie, saying that he was too nice a person to deserve a harsh sentence, especially since Marge was so abrasive most of Carthage's citizens were glad to see her gone.

While unusual, it's not quite what I'd call unbelievable. But does an examination of this murder and the reaction to it tell us something about human nature, our ability to ignore what we don't want to believe, or the conflict between frontier justice and Christian forgiveness? Sadly, Bernie doesn't do that either, which is unfortunate since with two stars as talented as Black and MacLaine, it seems like something truly unbelievable was within grasp. Watch my ReThink Review of Bernie below (transcript following).

An article in the Economist found that one-third of all death row executions in the United States since 1976 happened in Texas, and as late as 2003, it was still technically illegal for gay men in Texas to have consensual sex. So why would a small town in East Texas claim that one of its residents, an assumedly gay man, should be given a lenient sentence for shooting an old woman in the back? That's a question that's only partially answered by Richard Linklater's dark comedy, Bernie.

Bernie is based on the true story of Bernie Tiede, a likable and multi-talented assistant funeral home director played by Jack Black who quickly endeared himself to the East Texas town of Carthage through his good deeds, community involvement, and thoughtfulness towards the town's widowed "little ol' ladies".

But Bernie's unstoppable positivity collided with the unmovable grumpiness of a wealthy widow named Marge Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. After her husband's death, Bernie became Marge's nearly non-stop companion, accompanying her on first-class trips and outings and eventually quitting his job to become her full-time business manager and, essentially, slave. According to Bernie, Marge became more and more possessive and unreasonable until one day, in a fit of rage, Bernie shot Marge four times in the back with a .22-caliber rifle, then hid her body in a deep freezer in her garage.

For nine months, Bernie made excuses for Marge's absence while spending about two million dollars of her money, but mostly on others, donating to his church, investing in a local business, even buying cars for several people. Eventually, Marge's body was found, and prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson, played by Matthew McConaughy, had Bernie sent to prison, where he'll be eligible for parole in 2027.

That's not a spoiler since those are the undisputed facts of the case, and the trailer for Bernie tells you as much. Aside from grisly details and tantalizing questions about whether Marge's relationship with Bernie was sexual, the real story of Bernie is supposedly the fact that the people of Carthage, almost unanimously felt that Bernie deserved little or no punishment for his confessed crime since he was such a beloved community member and Marge was such a nasty piece of work.

Jack Black shows that he can dial down his wild man shtick, and the fact that he can sing and dance, as the real-life Bernie did in church and local theater productions, makes Black a rare talent. With her cold eyes, pursed lips, and endless negativity, MacLaine is excellent as a woman people would love to see dead. McConaughy, who was born in Texas, turns on the twang with a side of ham inhabiting the swagger of a showboating district attorney, while the citizens of Carthage largely play themselves, giving their theories and opinions in talking-head interviews.

Director and co-writer Richard Linklater calls Bernie his "East Texas Fargo," referring to the Coen brothers' neo-classic, but he'd be wise to avoid comparisons with such a vastly superior movie. While the dialect and bluntness of the Carthage locals provide a sense of place, as Fargo did so well with its accents and Minnesota niceness, it's Bernie's tone that's the most unfavorable mismatch. In Fargo, you may laugh, but part of you may feel guilty doing so since it's often at small moments of everyday life or at moments of often gruesome violence. With Bernie, it feels like everything is played for laughs, which often comes at the expense of Bernie's gay-coded mannerisms, speech patterns, and theatricality. And while the locals' unvarnished opinions provide some nice surprises, some of their commentary seems over-rehearsed, particularly when providing exposition.

But the question of why Bernie devoted himself so wholeheartedly to the wicked witch of East Texas, what drove his desire to please her until he snapped, and what role his closeted sexuality might have had, largely remains a mystery. And since the locals' reasoning for forgiving Bernie is essentially "Bernie good, Marge bad", we miss out on a potentially fascinating examination of how people from a state so proud of its "hang-'em-high" brand of outdated frontier justice deal with their realization that context, personal history, and extenuating circumstances can provide reason for mercy -- even in a murder that ended with a little ol' lady in a freezer.

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