No one really knows why 39-year-old Bernie Tiede killed 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in November 1996. Bernie director Richard Linklater instead asks a different question: Why did people in a small town in Texas rally around a murderer?
The movie is based on a real case. Journalist Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the film with Linklater, first wrote it as the short story "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas," published by Texas Monthly in January 1998. Hollandsworth and Linklater both hail from Texas, and Bernie includes countless details about life and people in East Texas. The scene-setting defines the movie, which is a slice-of-life film, not a murder mystery or suspense thriller.
Most of the characters in the movie successfully walk the line between folksy and exaggerated. Linklater, best known for his narrative-based comedies, did not set out to make a mockery of life in Carthage, Texas. Instead, he seeks humor in the real choices and lifestyles these characters represent.
Faux interviews with townspeople describe the main characters: Bernie (a terrific Jack Black) is "accommodating," charismatic, generous with his time and money, and gifted at his job as assistant funeral director. Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) is rich and accustomed to getting her own way.
Somehow, they strike up a relationship. His desire to please feeds her need to demand. He becomes her full-time companion; she writes him into her will.
And later, Bernie confesses to shooting her and covering up her death for nine months.
The townspeople call it a battle between sweetness and evil, with evil Mrs. Nugent pushing sweet Bernie into violent action. The district attorney, played by Matthew McConaughey (another Texan), pushes for a conviction on first-degree murder despite the town's protests.
Don't look for life lessons or someone to root for in this movie. Its purpose is to be quirky, but with violence at the heart of the plot and just enough strong language to earn a PG-13 rating, most families will want to stay away.