A man is on trial for first degree murder in small town Texas. The prosecutor in the case actually petitions to have the case moved to another jurisdiction because the local townspeople are too sympathetic to the guy who pulled the trigger. A situation like this does not come along too often; in fact, this may be the one and only time. Texas is famous for dispensing justice and folk who don't take too kindly to lawbreakers, especially men who shoot an old lady in the back four times at close range.
This is the crime Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) commits. In Marjorie Nugent's (Shirley MacLaine) garage in Carthage, Texas, Bernie in a fit of rage picks up a handy rifle and pulls the trigger four times murdering Ms. Nugent. So why on Earth are the townspeople sympathetic to Bernie and in many cases, on his side. Well, it appears Bernie is the nicest and most genuine person in the entire town. As an assistant funeral director, Bernie consoles the grieving, is an expert at funeral preparation and sales, and a master at readying the recently deceased for display. He leads hymns with his excellent singing voice, brings small gifts to crying widows, and is by far the town's best liked guy.
In his spare time, Bernie directs and stars in town plays, gives pep talks to the little league team, and always has a kind word to say to absolutely everybody. Marjorie Nugent, on the other hand, is completely despised by the entire town. After her husband passed away, she took over running the town bank and actually took pleasure in denying loans to customers. She hurled racial slurs at her gardner, hit the mailman with a broom, and was sued by her own extended family for access to a trust fund. Only Bernie was able to penetrate her evil shell. Bernie and Marjorie travelled to exotic places together, always in first class, went out to eat together, and over time, Marjorie became very jealous and controlling of Bernie's person.
There is only conjecture on just how far their relationship ever went. This film provides us with no definitive clues on any hint of sexuality between the two, but after awhile, Bernie (the nicest guy in the world) finally ran out of nice. Murders are extremely rare in Carthage, Texas. The local district attorney, Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), eagerly steps in front of the news cameras to paint Bernie as a conniving, thieving, back-shooting scoundrel who preyed on older women. The problem, though, is that the townspeople know better and this is exactly why Bernie is such a surprisingly effective and enjoyable film.
The townspeople are interviewed as if in a documentary and each of them is a colorful character with fascinating information to explain to the camera about Bernie, Marjorie, and East Texas lifestyle. They each have specific examples of how Bernie helped them out during tough times and about their calamitous run-ins with Marjorie. Pointing the camera directly at the actual Carthage townspeople was a stroke of genius by writer/director Richard Linklater. He has written brilliant scripts before (Before Sunrise) and Bernie continues this streak. The script is based on a 1998 magazine article by Skip Hollandsworth who luckily stumbled upon a mesmerizing case study.
Also, casting Jack Black as Bernie is probably the best casting idea of any film this year. Linklater worked with Black before in The School of Rock (2003) and Black here has all the room in the world to play around with and display his musical chops. His song and dance routine of 76 Trombones right after he kills Marjorie is a particular highlight. Rarely will an audience have as much fun watching a film about a middle of nowhere town and a somewhat regular crime. Even though Bernie was released earlier this year, it is picking up well-deserved nominations for Jack Black's definitive and memorable performance. Bernie is a small film and didn't last very long in the few theaters it was shown in; however, you should really take the time and effort to watch it; you'll be glad you did.