Follow TV Tropes


Film / Bernie

Go To
Not your usual Bernie. Also not your usual Jack Black.

Bernie is a 2011 film that presents the mostly-true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a funeral director in Carthage, TX, who befriends the local battle-axe, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), at her husband's funeral, becoming her closest confidant and companion, but eventually becoming her verbally abused pet and slave. At his wits' end, he snaps and kills her with an armadillo gun... and then proceeds to keep up appearances, hoping no one will notice the shut-in curmudgeon isn't around much. After being found out, the local DA (Matthew McConaughey) finds it difficult to gain a conviction for a remorseful Bernie who is loved universally by the townspeople and, instead, tries him in a more disinterested county.

The film, directed by Richard Linklater and written by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, is peppered heavily with clips of interviews of the real-life inhabitants of Carthage who remember Bernie.

Not to be confused with Albert Dupontel's 1996 film of the same name.

This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Affably Evil: Bernie is exceptionally affable, and only "evil" in that he killed Marjorie, though nearly everyone forgives him (and hated her).
  • Amazing Freaking Grace: Could one make a movie about a Texas funeral director without it?
  • Ambiguously Gay: Bernie himself. Danny Buck seemed to think he was, at least.
  • Amoral Attorney: A marginal case with Danny Buck playing up class differences in his questioning of Bernie for a jury of hicks to pursue an indictment of First Degree Murder without evidence of premeditation. However, the film makes it clear that he was concerned that Bernie may be acquitted in spite of having confessed because of his popularity.
  • Anachronism Stew: Bernie uses Majorie's iPhone in what is supposed to be 1994. That Apple notebook Bernie is using looks pretty modern also.
  • And There Was Much Rejoicing: Downplayed in that nobody actually celebrated Marjorie's death when news broke out. However, they didn't miss her at all (not even noticing that Marjorie has been suspiciously absent for months) and when Bernie is put on trial for her murder, the town comes to his defense, some of whom even argue that Marjorie deserves to die.
  • Asshole Victim: Marjorie is universally despised, mean, vindictive and probably racist. When she finally meets someone who can stand being around her, she basically tries to take possession of him and makes his life miserable. Almost nobody in the town seems to care that she's dead, and most are much more concerned with what will happen to Bernie.
  • Based on a True Story: Co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the original Texas Monthly article. The film does omit the significant portion of Carthage's population who was howling for Bernie's blood after he was caught.
  • Bang, Bang, BANG: Averted. The gun even sounds a little weak for a .22, though it is possible to have a .22 that makes about as much noise as a BB gun. The lack of noise helps paint the crime as not being pre-meditated.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Bernie is a nice guy through and through, but when Marjorie gets him triggered, Bernie shot her down. While he did immediately regret it, he did have to cover it up by putting her corpse in a freezer. He did confess when the police caught on however and did use her money to help charities and the church. Not to mention Marjorie was a real bitch who nobody liked.
  • Blatant Lies: Marjorie's granddaughter claims she was "close" to her, despite not having spoken to her for years after suing her for her money.
  • Break the Cutie: One of the more odd examples. Bernie, who is well loved by the community, is beaten down by Marjorie until he finally snaps.
  • Character Tic: The way Marjorie eats refried beans is so ridiculous that Bernie himself asks her to stop. It may ultimately serve as his Berserk Button. To her credit, Shirley Maclaine manages to look extremely obnoxious when doing it that even the audience wants to make her stop.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The "varmint gun" they use to shoot armadillos is later used by Bernie but on a different hard-shelled nuisance.
  • Common Nonsense Jury: Averted in that Danny Buck, in a rare move for a prosecutor, manages to get a change of venue to another county, because he can't find anyone in the original county that would convict Bernie, despite the fact that he confessed.
    • On the other hand, he was convicted of first-degree murder, with little or no evidence to prove premeditation. One of the Carthage townsfolk suggests that jury were just hicks who saw Bernie as too effete and cultured. such as when he is lured into properly pronouncing Les Misérables (Bernie's protest of "well, that's easy" is met with laughs of derision from the gallery and jury) when the play's name is properly pronounced throughout its advertising and the national mainstream media.
  • Creative Closing Credits: More interview clips with residents, including an original song about Bernie (the credits for the song go past while he is playing it). Also, a Photo Montage of the real Bernie and Marjorie, and a video clip of Jack Black meeting the real Bernie.
  • Dead Man's Chest: Bernie hides Marjorie's body in her deep freeze.
  • Due to the Dead: One of the reasons Bernie doesn't dispose of Marjorie's body is because, as a soft-hearted funeral director, he can't bear the thought of her going without a decent burial. He seems to have the vague idea that if he can only find a way out of his predicament, he can grant her one.
  • Description Cut: Davidson tells a scrum of reporters that "we may be dealing with a deranged killer". Cut to Bernie giving a pep talk to a Little League team.
  • Everyone Owns a Mac: See Anachronism Stew above.
  • Everything is Big in Texas: Averted in the usual Hollywood sense, but the film is still very very small town Texas. Most of the shots are littered with typical Texas knick-knacks (cast iron lone star symbols, saddles, longhorn figurines, religious paraphernalia). The residents dress and talk as if they live there (because they do). One man is seen drinking a Lone Star beer. Another has a "Come and Take It" hat. Even the church scenes are depicted accurately without being over the top. The only actor who could be guilty of being anywhere near stereotypical is Matthew McConaughey, who is from Texas anyway.
  • Expository Theme Tune: One of the townspeople sings an original song about Bernie and Marjorie over the credits.
  • Fag Hag: Marjorie. Maybe. The residents of Carthage aren't sure just what went on with Marjorie and Bernie and the film doesn't take a stand either way.
  • Foreshadowing: Soon after meeting Marjorie, Bernie promises that someday he will give her a beautiful funeral "with all the roses in East Texas." After killing her, he's unable to dispose of her body because he believes she still deserves a beautiful funeral.
  • For Want Of A Nail: If Bernie had kept up with previously agreed payments with Marjorie's estranged family after he killed her, they would not have been so motivated to investigate her whereabouts for a while yet and push the police to search her house.
  • Four Is Death: Bernie shoots Marjorie exactly four times in the back.
  • Freakier Than Fiction: The movie's tagline. "A story so unbelievable it must be true."
  • Freudian Excuse Is No Excuse: Danny makes a point that while Bernie is beloved by Carthage (and Marjorie constantly abused him) while his victim Marjorie was universally despised, it doesn’t excuse Bernie for committing murder.
  • Gold Digger: Hinted at with Bernie, who keeps paying social calls to the widowed old ladies of the town until he hits pay dirt with Marjorie.
  • The Grim Reaper: Personified in a presentation for the high school about the dangers of unsafe driving. Later, DA Davidson calls Bernie an "Angel of Death".
  • Hated by All: Almost nobody in the entire town likes Marjorie (or even blames Bernie for her murder). Heck, many of them are willing to shoot her for five dollars. It gets so bad that the frustrated DA has to get Bernie's case moved to another county because there are literally not enough people in Carthage with an unbiased opinion of Marjorie for a local jury to actually be in any way objective. Even then, Bernie gets convicted not so much because of what he did but because the DA managed to paint him as an out-of-touch elite snob.
  • Hate Sink: Marjorie "Marge" Nugent is universally despised in the town of Carthage for her Jerkass behavior. Though she becomes fond of Bernie for comforting her when her husband recently passed, she soon becomes extremely abusive and possessive of him demeaning him every day, chewing every bite 25 just to unease him, making him do errands and chores for her, quit his job, forcing him to kill an armadillo, and trapping him in her property when he tries to leave. Bernie would eventually snap from Marjorie's horrid treatment and shoot her four times In the Back killing her, to when the town found out nine months later they were more concern that Bernie would go to prison rather than Marjorie was killed.
  • Hazy-Feel Turn: Marjorie, somewhat, when she realizes that Bernie is the only person who is nice to her. However, she soon reverts back to form and dominates Tiede until he is driven to murder her.
  • A Hero to His Hometown: Due to integrating himself with society and donating a lot of Marjorie's money to charities and other communal events, Bernie is beloved by virtually everyone in Carthage. So much so that it's impossible for him to be convicted unless his trial is held in a county... 50 miles away from Carthage.
  • Historical Beauty Upgrade: Matthew McConaughey plays D.A. Danny Buck as a handsome, fit 40-something, when the real Buck was in his 50s, balding and described as looking like a bulldog. The trope is inverted with the title character as the real Bernie Tiede was taller, fitter and arguably more handsome than Jack Black.
  • I Just Want to Have Friends: Several townspeople posit that the reason Bernie was so generous with his time and money is because he wanted people to like him.
  • Implausible Deniability: Some of the townspeople refused to believe Bernie killed Marjorie, despite the evidence and his confession.
  • In the Back: Poor Marjorie.
  • Jekyll & Hyde: Discussed by Bernie, who is trying in a roundabout way to talk about his crime. The lady he's talking to thinks he's talking about his homosexuality.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: While Danny Buck is rather overzealous and eager to convict Bernie (even using some unsavory tactics), he does point out that Bernie killed someone and can't simply be exonerated because everyone likes him, especially when he confessed to his actions.
  • Kick the Dog: One of the final acts to kill audience sympathy for Marjorie was trying to force Bernie to shoot an intruding, but cute looking, armadillo who doesn't look like it is doing anything seriously damaging.
  • Loved by All: Everyone in Carthage has nothing but nice things to say about Bernie, to the point the prosecutor can't find anyone in town willing to convict him of murder. After he's convicted, Bernie is still so beloved that the people of Carthage must arrange a schedule to determine who gets to see him that week. Even in prison, he's a well-regarded and well-liked model inmate who becomes popular among both inmates and staff for his good nature and willingness to help others.
  • Mistaken for Gay: At one point, Bernie talks with someone about the possibility of losing control of yourself and committing a horrible act you couldn't possibly have done otherwise. He's covertly referring to his murder of Marjorie, but the woman thinks he's trying to tell her that he's gay.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Bernie kills Marjorie, it cuts to him performing in a jaunty number from The Music Man.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Name-checked.
  • Mysterious Past: Bernie arrives in Carthage with no backstory whatsoever, except that he has experience in funeral homes and is an excellent mortician.
  • Only Sane Man: Danny Buck, at least in his own eyes.
  • Passed-Over Inheritance: Marjorie re-writes her will to bequeath everything to Bernie. Her estranged children are none too thrilled.
  • The Perfect Crime: Bernie's lawyer inverts this to play down implications that Marjorie's killing was a calculated pre-meditated murder and not a remorseful crime of passion.
  • Poor Man's Porn: Buck observes that Bernie subscribes to a men's fitness magazine without being very athletic himself; the implication is that the magazine serves as his beefcake porn.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: As if Marjorie wasn't loathsome enough as is, she fires her loyal black gardener because she erroneously believed he was stealing from her and then rebukes Bernie for sticking up for "his kind."
  • Pot Calling The Kettle Black: The simple townsfolk of Carthage don't have many nice things to say about the simple townsfolk of San Augustine.
  • Resignations Not Accepted: When Bernie and Marjorie get in an argument, Bernie begins to drive off, insisting that he can't deal with her when she's not making sense. As he heads down the long driveway, Marjorie spitefully grabs the remote control for the front gate and closes it before Bernie can get out. This marks the beginning of Bernie feeling trapped.
  • Rich Bitch: Marjorie is a deeply unpleasant person.
  • Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: The attitude of nearly everyone in Carthage. Sure, technically Bernie's guilty of murder, but he's such a great guy and the victim was so terrible that it's clear no local jury would ever convict him. It gets to the point where, in an incredibly unorthodox move, the prosecutor moves for a change of venue because the accused is too beloved.
  • Shout-Out:
    • To Les Misérables, during the DA's questioning of Bernie. Very significant, as Les Mis also concerns the story of a man (Jean Valjean) ostensibly doing good deeds after breaking the law, as well as a man of the law (Inspector Javert) who refuses to see the lawbreaker's situation in anything other than black and white.
    • It's never said outright but it's clear that Bernie and his theater group are rehearsing for a production of The Music Man. In real life, it was Guys and Dolls.
  • Show Within a Show: The film has Marjorie and Bernie attend several productions including a ballet of MacBeth and Bernie directs and acts in a few, including The Music Man.
  • Silent Partner: One of the townsfolk never says anything, but constantly cracks up at every cynical thing her friend says.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: This film is more cynical in comparison to Linklater's other works due to it having a bleaker tone and having characters refusing to believe Bernie would kill someone and not care that someone was murdered even if she was an Alpha Bitch.
  • Speak Ill of the Dead: Pretty much every single one of the town's inhabitants, who are all being interviewed well after Marjorie's death.
  • Trophy Wife: Gender-reversed with Bernie and Marjorie.
  • Unreliable Narrator: We see the murder committed, which was in private in the victim's residence, and the only person who can describe the event is Bernie Tiede himself, who has every incentive to slant his story to make himself as sympathetic as possible.
    • A more meta example. Linklater mixed scripted interviews with real-life interviews so that it becomes hard to tell what's real and what's not.
  • Video Credits: The end credits show the real Bernie Tiede in prison.
  • Villain Protagonist: Deconstructed. Bernie is actually a Nice Guy but considering he is the one who did a terrible thing that the second half of the story revolves around the murder of Marjorie, he is still considered this.
  • Villain with Good Publicity: It seems like Bernie could have gotten elected mayor.
  • Wine Is Classy: Another way the DA tries to paint Bernie as a high-class snob. Bernie knows that (gasp) white wine goes with fish.
  • You Are Not Alone: Bernie's effect on Marjorie.