Bernie is one of those odd little movies that sticks with you. Partly because Jack Black does such a believable job playing the main character and partly because any one of us could be pushed to a murderous edge by a crotchety, heartless old woman.
There’s also the fact that it’s based on a true story. A while back, a colleague from my UPOD writing group (helmed by the skilled David Hochman) posted a link to a story he wrote for the New York Times Magazine titled “How My Aunt Marge Ended Up in the Deep Freeze.” Well, who can pass up a title like that?! I immediately read it and ate it up.
But first, let me tell you what the movie’s about. Jack Black stars as Bernie Tiede, a small-town funeral director in Carthage, Texas. Bernie is a sweet, good-natured, showtune-loving, God-fearing mortician who’s loved by everyone in town. Really, he just wants to help people, whether they’re still kicking or have assumed room temperature in his funeral parlor.
That’s why it comes as such a shock when it’s revealed that Bernie murdered an ornery widow named Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. Not only that, but Bernie goes one further. After shooting her four times in the back, he stuffs her body in a freezer in the garage, where she stays for nine months while Bernie spends a large chunk of her fortune helping the people of Carthage, including pledging a new wing for the Methodist church. No one bothers to ask where Bernie got the cash. And no one seems overly concerned that they haven’t seen Marjorie for months.
It’s fascinating to watch the movie and then read Joe’s true-life story of how his aunt ended up under Marie Callender’s chicken pot pies in the freezer. While a few things were changed for the film — bits of dialogue and a fact here and there — the things you’d imagine must be made up were all true.
“The trial lawyers really did wear Stetsons and cowboy boots and really were named Danny Buck Davidson and Scrappy Holmes,” writes Joe. “Daddy Sam’s barbecue and bail bonds, just a few blocks from the courthouse in Carthage (population: 6,700), really does have a sign that says, ‘You Kill It, I’ll Cook It!'” He continues…
I was living in Los Angeles when Aunt Marge was murdered in 1996 and hadn’t been to Carthage, where I was born, in quite a few years. I went back for the trial in 1998 because, let’s face it, it’s not often that someone in your family becomes the focus of a sensational murder case, on the local news for weeks at a time, the circumstances of her demise so tawdry and bizarre that the story appeared in People magazine, on Hard Copy and, eventually, on the guilty-pleasure pinnacle of true-crime cable-TV programs, City Confidential. And there was something about Aunt Marge’s ending up in a freezer that seemed appropriate. She’d always been kind of coldhearted. It was not an unfitting end.
And based on the film, no one in Carthage was all that broken up about her death. It’s hard to imagine a person so hard-hearted that there isn’t a tiny shred of compassion buried somewhere in there, and yet, it appears that Joe’s Aunt Marge was just such a person.
Another reason the movie is so captivating is that you find yourself wondering if, indeed, Bernie should have gone to prison for the crime. He’s serving a life sentence, but will be eligible for parole in 2027, when he’ll be 69 years old.
Your head tells you that of COURSE he should serve time. He murdered someone in cold blood, after all. Took a gun and shot the person four times. In the back. Then stuffed them in a freezer, where they stayed for months on end.
And yet, Bernie seems like such a nice guy. A caring guy who’s helpful to the living and respectful of the dead. A guy who’ll go out of his way to make sure other people around him are comfortable and at ease. A guy who sizes up a situation and sees where he can be most useful.
Should Bernie Tiede have gone to prison? I guess so. But it almost seems like there must be some sort of special consideration for people like Bernie, a genuinely kind soul who was pushed to the very edge of his sanity by a mean-spirited widow who made his life a living hell.
“I deserve to be in prison,” Bernie told Joe, who visited him at the Telford Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, 100 miles north of Carthage. “Of course I do. But not for as long as I have. There are people in here who have done things more heinous than I can imagine in my wildest dreams, and they’ll be going home before I do.” He was crying again. “I’ve adjusted. But I want to feel the grass under my feet. I want something other than concrete. I want to step on carpet again. I have not stepped on carpet in 14 years.” He leaned in, his shaky voice barely a whisper.
“I want to go home,” he said, as the tears flowed. “Every day I want to go home. And one of these days, they’re gonna let me.”
Bernie is playing at the Traverse City Film Festival, July 31 – Aug. 5, 2012. It’s rated PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language.
Have you seen Bernie? Do you think his jail time is justified?