Linklater’s Comedy Bernie Raises Serious Questions about Grace, Mercy, and Justice

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CAUTION: LOTS OF SPOILERS

In his latest movie, Bernie, Richard Linklater pulls back the “pine curtain” and takes an affectionate look at how the small East Texas town of Carthage responded to a shocking murder in the late nineties. Bernie Tiede, a mild-mannered funeral director/Sunday School teacher/leading citizen, kills Marjorie Nugent, a rich 81-year-old widow known as the “meanest woman in town.” The town is split on the extent of judgment or mercy Bernie deserves. 

This black comedy could have become parody but instead offers a subdued, sympathetic performance by Jack Black in the title role, and documentary-type interviews with locals liberally interspersed in the action. Linklater and his co-writer Skip Hollingsworth pose a number of questions but do not attempt to draw conclusions. Bernie’s friends and neighbors, most of whom are Christians, speak to the camera as they grapple with the reality that this “good person,” who is considered a “pillar of the community” has committed this crime. Their comments are both funny and authentic. While it’s scripted, to a great extent this movie works because you really can’t make this stuff up.

Bernie’s story is that he snapped because of Marjorie’s hateful, controlling behavior. He seeks God’s forgiveness and seems the picture of regret, yet leaves Marjorie’s body in the deep freeze for months while he proceeds to give away money in her name. After he is caught his pastor says, “Bernie will need our prayers… and to know that we are with him.”

Responding with grace without detaching from reality can be a challenge. Scandals happen in every church or community. It is often difficult to reconcile what we believe about the people involved with our personal ideas about what “good” and “evil” look like. The responses of the citizens of Carthage run the gamut from sympathetic rationalization to authentic grace. Many of Bernie’s friends react to his arrest with shock and a bit of denial.

Some of Bernie’s behavior doesn’t jive. There is enough evidence to lead the prosecutor to conclude that Bernie is a premeditated killer who happens to be a really good actor. Marjorie’s family, who were not on speaking terms with her before she died, may have mixed motives in wanting to see Bernie prosecuted to the full extent of the law. She had cut them all out of her will and left everything to Bernie, who had been her companion for some time and who had access to her bank account.

In a way Marjorie’s money drives the story. Her conflicts with her family, Bernie’s entanglement with her, the murder and its discovery, and the publicity surrounding the trial are all tied to money. Money figures into the community’s support of Bernie. Money becomes a factor in persuading the jury. Money is never the whole story but the story would never have unfolded as it did had Marjorie not been wealthy as well as mean.

Faith is also central to the story. Bernie’s involvement in church, his emotional confession, and the mercy expressed toward him by many of those interviewed all point to grace-based Christianity, but with the caveat that Bernie is somehow “worthy” of grace. The church is neither bashed nor applauded in the film. The church is presented in the contexts of its faith-based perspectives and small town East Texas prejudices. 

In the end whether Bernie Tiede is the man his friends think he is or the man the prosecution believes him to be is irrelevant.  Bernie may not even be the man he believes himself to be. Grace is there because we aren’t good and we aren’t worthy, not because we might be good or worthy enough to merit the benefit of the doubt.

If you’re interested in the true story and want to read further I recommend the following articles:

Skip Hollingsworth, Bernie’s co-writer with Richard Linklater reported the story for Texas Monthly in January of 1998. Much of the movie comes from his original story, Midnight in the Garden of East Texas

Marjorie Nugent’s nephew Joe Rhodes wrote an article, How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze which appeared in the New York Times.

 

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