No, it is more thoughtful than that. The very idea of “Bernie” is funny, and while it is first and foremost a funny movie, it manages to, or even does so against its own comedic will, to raise very interesting questions about justice, guilt, innocence, identity, whether or not a whole town or society can be crazy, whether there is such a thing as collective guilt, and finally, whether Easterners like us are really that much smarter, more sophisticated and moral than Texans. Or at least East Texans.
East Texas is where Carthage is, and where the real life Bernie Tiede killed an aging widow named Margie Nugent. Young gigolos scheming on old lady-money is nothing new, God knows, and even young gigolos killing old ladies for money isn’t, but when the whole town gets behind the killer, either denying he did it, or excusing him for it, you’ve got something new.
The reason they excuse him is because, as one of the townspeople interviewed for the movie says, Margie is the type of person who would just as soon “rip you a double wide, three bedroom, two bathroom asshole” as look at you. And because they just love Bernie. Bernie manages to be loved by everyone in spite of being a twinkle-toed, limp-wristed double order of fruit salad. He is so over the top in his seeming gayness, going to the opera, doing interior decorating, and acting in the town plays, that everyone wonders what desires might be lurking beneath his ultra-Christian surface. But since he never expresses those desires, he is not held to account for them. Only the District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) accuses him of being anything other than someone East Texas could be proud of. He tells us that Bernie would hold a man’s hand too long when they shook, that he subscribed to Men’s Fitness even though he didn’t work out, and he was known to wear sandals.
These kind of straight lines are what make the movie so funny. But the movie does not merely indict East Texas, I don’t think. Bernie is every grandmother’s wet dream of a good Christian man, and as such he really has no balls. Or ovaries either. In being a good Christian man, he seems to have conquered his id with his superego, with his sexual desires dying in the process. Not only does he feel no passion, he seems to have no covetousness of any kind. He doesn’t want anything but to be liked, as one of the more astute townspeople points out.
At first, as I sat here taking notes while watching the movie, I wrote things like Jimmy Swaggart, Tony Roberts, Tammy Baker, but as the movie went on I realized that this guy was supposed to be for real. He really was a Christian, really put his fellow man before himself, was self-sacrificing and humble, and really saw the best in everyone. He wants everyone to like him, and Margie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine) is the toughest sell in town, so he goes after her. And at first it seems like he has won her over. They become a weird kind of sexless couple. Bernie is in charge of her finances. And she is in charge of Bernie. For a time she acts out of character and opens up to him. But then she goes back to her default setting—bitch. And after putting up with that for longer than even a stout-hearted Christian man could stand, Bernie shoots her in the back in what is as close to a fit of rage as he can muster.
It is a tribute to Black that he is convincing as a character not in it for the main chance. He doesn’t dispose of the body, which he could have easily done. And he spends all Nugent’s money on the people in town. When I say the whole town is culpable, I mean in the way it is complicit in this idea of male Christianity. And how much is Tiede responsible? How much are we to be held accountable for our own self-delusions? For it is that self-delusion that drives him to murder, I think. He eats a lot of shit in his lifetime, but remedies that by insisting everyone love him. And he wins everyone over but one very mean old lady. She signs over all her money to him, but in return he becomes her perpetual emotional concubine and punching bag. Would he have killed her if just once during his life he had been able to say shit when his mouth was full?
The movie doesn’t delve into the childhood or parentage of Bernie at all, and I think that was a wise choice on the part of director Richard Linklater. To have to decide what wrought such a man, nature or nurture, would be too difficult a task. Let us just assume that a man who wanted to be liked in that part of Texas had an impossible ideal to live up to, and he lived up to it until the moment he pulled the trigger.
And don’t think that only East Texas is being indicted. There are right wing conservative evangelicals all over the land who think that their town, and their country, and their God, is the best. And don’t think that jingoism and chauvinism are only the province of Red States. Of course, the kind of moral even-handedness I am invoking now is an old standby of the sneakily intolerant liberal, and serves as absolution for laughing at all those “you know you’re a hillbilly when” jokes. And finally, I must indict myself, for believing immediately that Margie Nugent’s meanness was never a cover for anything more human or humane, while it took me most of the movie to start to believe that Bernie was not a con man. If she had any goodness, and he had any evil, it was buried so deep within each it was lost forever.
The final irony, for me at least, and the most delicious one, is that the DA Davidson, who has to get the trial moved not because Bernie will get railroaded in Carthage but because even with a confession he will get off, is much more morally objectionable than Bernie. He gives lip service to justice while sticking it up anyone’s ass he can. I wrote in my notes about him “phony prick.” And then I had an unsettling thought—he might be so self-deluded that he thinks he is serving justice and not his own sadistic impulses. Bernie wants everyone to like him and so becomes a super Christian, and good old Danny Buck Davidson wants everyone to suffer, so he becomes a law man. The stated intentions of both are muddied by un-self-acknowledged self- interest. It’s an unsettling thought, to think that these two men, who exhibit such disparate symptoms, suffer from the same disease—being bat shit crazy. Still, as crazy goes, I would much rather hang out with Bernie.
At the end, we get a townsman singing an East Texas Bernie-ballad:
Oh Bernie, Oh Bernie, what have you done,
You killed poor Miss Nugent, and never even run.
No, he didn’t run. He does go off to prison, though, where he becomes the leader of the choir. And I bet most of those prisoners love him. And if they don’t, they better watch out.
© 2015 Mike Welch