'Bernie' depicts death in a small Texas town on Netflix

The account of a murder that takes place in a small Texas town as depicted by “Bernie” benefits from the first-rate cast, which consists of Jack Black as the title character and murderer, Shirley MacLaine as the well-deserving victim, and Matthew McConaughey as the prosecutor. However, according to the review in GQ, the real character in “Bernie” is the small Texas town of Carthage, where the murder took place. The town is filled with as many quirky characters as one should hope to find in one story.

The essential facts of the case involved the mild-mannered, slightly “effeminate” Bernie Tiede, an assistant mortician, shooting a rich widow named Marjorie Nugent and then stuffing her body in her own freezer.  The story is well told in a 1998 article in Texas Monthly. The attitude of the townsfolk in the conservative small Texas town close to the Louisiana border is the aspect of the story that is most eyebrow raising. In the parlance of rural Texas, it was the consensus that Ms. Nugent “needed killing” and that Bernie was too sweet and popular a man to have to go to jail for it, even when it was discovered that he had embezzled his victim’s money with wild abandon.

Part of the reason that Bernie Tiede was so popular was that he was so nice to everyone. He had a knack for comforting older women who seemed to lose their husbands with sorrowful frequency. He was active in the community, singing in the church choir, helpful and friendly to everyone he met. Clearly, he loved the small town life afforded by Carthage, and the town loved him back, even while most people thought that Bernie was a closeted gay. The affection the townspeople held for Bernie was not even diminished when investigators turned up a store of pornographic VHS videotapes the contents of which are best not mentioned.

Ms. Nugent, a curt, unfriendly woman, was not afforded the same treatment. Few if any people in Carthage were sad that she was sent prematurely to her reward or blamed Bernie in the least for sending her there. The secret is that while the town is inhabited by Christian conservatives, they exhibit the two most appealing qualities of Christians, the capacity to forgive and to think the best of other people. It did not matter that Bernie wore sandals and did not date any of the local women. Jesus Christ wore sandals, kept company with 12 men, and never married. That was the end of it.

“Bernie” is a 2011 independent film directed by Richard Linklater, who grew up in Texas and got to know Bernie well when he was released briefly from prison while his 99-year conviction was appealed. The movie was well received by critics and made a respectable box office for a small independent film, taking in double its $5 million budget. “Bernie” recently became available for streaming on Netflix.