Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1997 in Carthage and a shocking discovery hits smack dab in the middle of town square. That’s rural east Texas where everyone knows everything about everyone. Well almost everything and almost everyone. A year later, Skip Hollandsworth wrote an article for Texas Monthly about the fascinating, too-strange-to-believe story that shook this community. Now, 16 years after the murder, Hollandsworth co-wrote a screenplay with director Richard Linklater and they present a visual representation that allows us to wrap our heads around the events.
Linklater is always an interesting filmmaker. His resume includes Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock. Here he re-teams with Jack Black, who stars at Bernie Tiede, the nicest man in Carthage. You need not take my word for it. Linklater interviews several actual Carthage residents who swear Bernie was the sweetest, most generous man they ever met. Some even state they will never believe he committed the murder … despite his confession. Whatever you think of Mr. Black as an actor, his performance here is unlike any of his previous work. He is somehow subtle and believable while playing a real life over-the-top assistant funeral home director. His walk, speech pattern, mannerisms, interests and singing style tell us all we need know about Bernie Tiede.
The basic story is that Bernie befriends the wealthiest, wickedest widow in town. They become very close as friends, travel partners and even live together. Bernie gains Marjorie Nugent’s trust and is eventually in charge of her finances and written in as her sole beneficiary. What makes this odd? Well, Bernie is 38. Marjorie (played by Shirley MacLaine) is 81. Oh, and he is gay. This odd arrangement somehow is accepted in this community for one reason … he is just so a nice man! He truly is nice. Right up until the point where he’s not so nice.
This is one of those movies where the links are stronger than the chain. Black’s performance is stellar and worth the price of admission. Equally entertaining are the “interviews” with the local townspeople. And adding intrigue to all of that is the best ever supporting performance from Matthew McConaughey as local DA, Danny Buck Davidson. Those three elements make this oddball movie a sight to behold. There is humor to make us laugh and oddity to raise eyebrows.
The downside is that the docudrama approach actually takes away from what should have been the key aspects of the story. More screen time watching the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie could have proved enlightening. Instead, the development is reduced to snapshots of vacations and a snippet of a couples massage. The dark elements are only hinted at until the shock of the deed. The filmmakers choose not to dwell on the “other” side of Bernie, and instead play along with the locals version of the nicest man in town.
Movies based on truth are all the more enticing when the characters are themselves quite interesting and different. That’s certainly the case with Bernie Tiede, Danny Buck Davidson, and the locals in Carthage. For a taste of small town East Texas living and dying, questionable morals, battles between legalities and religion, and the hypocrisy and clouded judgment that occurs when a nice guy gets dirty … this is as good as it gets.
SEE THIS MOVIE IF: black comedy immersed in real life tragedy is your thing OR you don’t want to miss a wonderfully odd and touching performance from Jack Black (and lots of hymnal singing)
SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t apprecaite a murderer being portrayed as a nice guy – even if that’s the TRUE part of the story!
Watch the trailer: