Richard Linklater offers the story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a gay mortician who companions a significantly older woman, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and then, in a fit of rage and exasperation at her domineering ways, shoots her in the back and stuffs her in a freezer, pretending she is still alive (not ala’ Norman Bates). Tiede is the town Robin Hood, the town being Carthage, Texas, and in many ways, Carthage is the star of the film. Linklater uses very few professional actors, instead interspersing the dramatic narrative with interviews of real-life Carthage citizens, almost all of whom are squarely on the side of Tiede, and almost all of whom are hilarious. To them, Nugent was a nasty, wicked old wretch and Bernie Tiede was the man who bought you a nice gift, sang the beautiful song that escorted a loved one to the hereafter, directed the town play or just gave you a nice wave everyday. And he was driven to it.
Of course, in the presentation, Linklater neglects a few ugly details of the real life Tiede (not all of the vast sums he spent of Nugent’s wealth went to charity), but it appears the basic premise is true – Tiede was well-loved and Nugent well-hated (her own nephew observed, “‘Bernie’s not the first one who thought about killing her. He’s just the first one who went through with it”).
Black is mesmerizing as Tiede, hilarious, hapless and harried, but uncontainably sweet and just a little guilty (even before the murder). MacLaine is effective as an old witch and Matthew McConaghey is amusing as the dogged D.A. But the stars are the real people of Carthage, who Linklater neither mocks or mythologizes, wisely letting them be.
My only criticism is the choice to make Tiede so sympathetic. Black does a great job in keeping him from being saccharine, with occasional flashes of guilty pleasure at his newly found wealth, but Linklater keeps away from any real dark heart, opting for a feel-good film. Which is fine, but I think it could have remained feel-good and still been a little more revealing.