Bernie is a true story taken almost verbatim from an article that appeared in Texas Monthly in January of 1998. The title refers not to Weekend At Bernie’s (never mind the subject matter similarities), but to the name of the man at the center of the story, Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral home director who, in 1996, shot and killed a wealthy, East Texas widow, Marjorie Nugent, with whom he had formed a close relationship. Bernie then hid the body and continued carrying out the woman’s affairs as if she was still alive.
The story then gets really strange, because when it comes time to try Bernie before a jury of his peers in the small East Texas town of Carthage, an impartial jury can’t be found. The town is too much on Bernie’s side and care little about the murdered woman. The prosecution asks that the trial be moved, and Bernie is tried in a nearby county much to the consternation of his neighbors.
Bernie stars Hollywood notables Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Shirley MacLaine, as well as a host of other well-known, seldom lauded character actors in key roles. These actors are all excellent. In fact, Bernie is probably one of the best acted movies I’ve seen in a long time. In addition, the movie features a large number of the actual citizens of Carthage in interview segments talking about Bernie Tiede and the people and events that make up his story. These interviews and the fact that the movie was filmed in Carthage where the events took place are the movie’s greatest treasure, lending it an air of genuineness befitting Bernie Tiede.
The movie works like a documentary with Jack Black and the other movie stars in what are essentially reenactments of the events that took place between 1990 and 1996. Face to face interviews are included with everyone in the cast (except Jack Black’s Bernie and Shirley MacLaine’s Marjorie) and with the town’s actual citizens, and the audience is given the opportunity to pass judgement on Bernie based solely on the facts of the case and his reputation with the citizens of Carthage. (The interviews with the townspeople must be recreated though, as they recite quotes from the 14-year-old Texas Monthly article almost verbatim.)
I loved this movie. As a Texan, I enjoyed seeing people on the screen that looked, talked, and acted like people from my hometown. (Like most Texans, I love my state.) As a movie-watcher, I also especially enjoyed the mystery I was allowed to become a part of, the mystery of how a man as kind and gentle as Bernie could ever murder someone. Even though the audience knows it’s coming the entire time, it’s still hard to believe.
Bernie is a movie that questions our ideas of mercy and justice. Is murder ever justified? Should a person be allowed mercy by his or her peers if they too despised the person he or she killed? What proves a person’s character – his or her numerous graces or his or her one, unavoidable sin?
Granted, most of Bernie‘s questions apply directly to ideas of civil justice – the justice community members distribute on behalf of each other – but these civil ideas of justice are rooted in our ideas of divine justice, a fact that is not lost on the movie, as it includes scenes of Bernie’s pastor preaching a sermon encouraging his congregation to stand by Bernie in his time of need just as God stands with him. One Carthaginian woman even reminds the camera that we’re all sinners and mercy is God’s gift to everyone.
My take – Bernie Tiede certainly appeared to be a good man overflowing with generosity and grace, but he was also a sinner as deserving of justice and as in need of mercy as any other person on the planet, and that includes Marjorie Nugent, spiteful and prone to selfishness as she may have been. We do wrong to favor either party over the other. The law says if someone kills someone else, they ought to face punishment. I think Bernie should be punished. We owe that bit of justice to Marjorie, to Bernie, and even to ourselves. I don’t want to live in a country where there is no recompense for crime. But that’s just my take, and not to abdicate my responsibility as a citizen both of Texas and of this nation, but I’m glad I wasn’t on Bernie Tiede’s jury.
I’m also glad I’m not his Lord, because working out justice and mercy has to be one of the most ferocious tasks our Lord undertakes. Furthermore, I’m glad I’ll one day fall at the Lord’s feet and beg for mercy, instead of the feet of the citizens of Carthage, TX, because I think God more likely and more able to properly administer grace than all of humanity combined.