It used to be relatively rare to hear a real-life story that proved the adage “truth is stranger than fiction” because there were so many details in scandalous true stories that couldn’t be shared in polite society. Now, of course, all we hear are true stories filled with scandalous details—ones involving Charlie Sheen or John Edwards or Herman Cain or whoever will pop up between the time I finish writing this piece and you begin reading it. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is like “dog bites man.” It’s so true it’s boring.
And that is what makes Bernie so miraculous. The best American movie of the year so far, Bernie restores the strangeness to a true story that really does seem stranger than truth ought to be. In a small East Texas town in 1996, a 38-year-old mortician named Bernie Tiede shot and killed his 81-year-old employer, Marjorie Nugent. He then stashed her body in a freezer in her garage. And there it remained for nine months, while he spent more than $1 million of her money.
As it turns out, the movie really isn’t about Bernie and Marjorie, but rather about the people who live with and around them in the friendly town of Carthage, Texas. They are perfectly decent, well-meaning, churchgoing folk who wouldn’t hurt a fly. And they don’t care about the murder. They dislike the victim, they love the killer, and they don’t want him to be punished for his crime. What proves stranger than fiction in Bernie isn’t Bernie, but Carthage.
The movie is based on a terrific piece of journalism published in Texas Monthly in 1998 by Skip Hollandsworth. He cowrote Bernie with Richard Linklater, the director whose previous Texas-based films include the brilliant Slacker (1991) and the even more brilliant Dazed and Confused (1993).
The movie they’ve made together is an innovative hybrid reminiscent of American Splendor, the extraordinary 2003 film about the real-life cartoonist Harvey Pekar, who narrates American Splendor and appears in it every now and then as himself, but is played by Paul Giamatti. In this case, Bernie is played by Jack Black in a revelatory performance. Marjorie is played by an amazingly unvain Shirley MacLaine, and the other major roles are essayed by actors as well. But the townspeople of Carthage are all played by the real-life people of Carthage; they appear onscreen as narrators, Greek chorus members, and commenters as the story unfolds.
What we learn is that Bernie was the kind of pseudo-eccentric who can really make a home for himself in a small town, despite the fact that he was odd, effeminate, and prone to impulsive spending. “Was Bernie gay?” a title card asks at one point. Hollandsworth’s article leaves little doubt—Bernie had a stash of homosexual porn in his house when he was arrested—but the film handles the question discreetly.
The point is that, despite his former boss at the mortuary saying “Bernie was a little light in the loafers,” he was not mocked or scorned or beaten. Rather, his undeniable kindnesses to elderly widows, his efforts to enhance and beautify the town, his solicitude toward others, and his beautiful singing voice which he used at funerals and in church all made him beloved.
So beloved, in fact, that when his crime was discovered, the town prosecutor was besieged by neighbors demanding he let Bernie loose, and by the minister of the local church asking everyone to pray for Bernie—none of them wasting a second’s sympathy on the victim. Unlike Bernie, Marjorie was unpleasant, rude, rich, and she made people feel bad about themselves. Surely Bernie had a reason for doing what he did!
As was true with Dazed and Confused, Linklater understands the complicated social dynamic of this community and offers a full-blooded portrait of it. Somehow, he manages to make the Carthaginians amusing without being condescending or making them appear to be grotesque hicks. They just have too much Texas saltiness to them, too much sparkle and life. And yet they all excused a great crime that had taken place in their midst. This is the mystery at the heart of Bernie, and it is one of the glories of this altogether splendid film that it doesn’t attempt to offer a neat sociological explanation.
In one sense, Bernie is not stranger than fiction because the story was anticipated by a work of fiction. That would be John Millington Synge’s great and strange 1907 play, The Playboy of the Western World, in which a youth who arrives in a small town claiming to have killed his own father becomes, first, a figure of curiosity to the excited and scandalized townsfolk and, eventually, a full-fledged rock star. Then the townsfolk discover he didn’t actually kill the old man, and it is only at this point that they shun and condemn him as a coward and a crook.
The Playboy of the Western World provoked bloody riots when it was first performed because it seemed to mock both a vicious criminal act and the Irish people. A work of art provoking wide-scale violence? Today, such a thing wouldn’t be stranger than fiction; it would be science fiction. The problem with Bernie is not that it will cause anyone to riot. The problem is whether the producers can get anybody to go out and see it. You should.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.