Thursday, June 6, 2013

BERNIE the Movie: A Lesson in the Value of Reality

It really is a nice town
Have you seen the movie Bernie yet? It's about the cold-blooded murder in Carthage, Texas of a little old lady that lots of folks despised, by a man lots of folks still love.

It shocked East Texas, not only for the crime itself, but for the number of people who wanted Bernie to go free. The director tells you smack dab at the beginning of the movie that this is

A True Story

Not 'based on a true story', not 'inspired by true events', but

A True Story

Did the writers, producers, directors, and actors get it right?

This is my neck of the woods. And although I wasn't here when all the badness went down, I can tell you that folks around here say 'yes'. Absolutely. And brilliantly, eerily so.


The movie stars some big names.

Jack Black plays gentle soul Bernie Tiede, a successful mortician who sings in the Methodist choir, volunteers with the college theater group, and befriends the meanest widow in town, Marjorie Nugent. (Bernie has a beautiful voice (he really does), and Jack Black did a fabulous job of singing in the movie.)

Based on comments from those that knew Nugent, Shirley MacLaine nails her emotionally distant attitudes and behaviors.

Matthew McConaughey plays Danny Buck Davidson, Panola County's District Attorney, then and now. The only criticism I've heard about McConaughey's portrayal is that he's too good looking to be a fair representation of Danny Buck. (Sorry Mr. Davidson, but it is what it is.)

*Spoiler alert* The plot is simple: rich old man dies, Bernie befriends wealthy widow, she gives him power of attorney over her assets, he spends on her behalf, she drives him crazy, he kills her and stuffs her body in the freezer under the Marie Callender pot pies, and then continues spending her money and pretending that she's alive but unavailable. Her body is found about nine months later, Bernie gives a tearful confession, but nobody (except Danny Buck) wants Bernie to go to jail. *Spoiler over*

Definitely watch the movie for the story - it's good entertainment. But more importantly, watch it for the people.

The best bar-b-q around
There's a zoo-like quality to Bernie, as if you're standing outside a cage, bag of snacks in hand, goggling the foreign beasts within and wondering if it's safe to toss them a nut. Rightly so. Because these are real Texans. Not the fake kind like those on "Dallas" or "Dynasty". Real live Texans, in their natural habitat.

This is where I went to high school, where my family is from, and where I live now. These are my people, I love them, and they're the basis for the characters in my crime novels. So, to answer a few questions you may have after watching Bernie:

  • Yes, we really talk like that.

  • Yes, we really look like that. (Well, I can't speak for the folks on the jury in San Augustine, but I've heard the movie portrays them accurately.)

  • Our hair is really that big and yes, some of us wear that much make-up.

  • Yes, Bernie's trial was moved to San Augustine because Danny Buck worried that people in Panola County liked Bernie too much to convict him.

  • Yes, church is that important.

  • Funerals are also that important.

  • East Texas kind of looks like that, but some of the movie was filmed in the Hill Country, down near Austin.

  • Yes, some local people wanted Bernie to get away with killing Marjorie Nugent, and were vocal about it. And yes, some dear little old ladies marched down to the jail and demanded to post bail for Bernie.

  • Quite a few locals would still like to see Bernie released from prison. (He's eligible for parole in 2027, when he's 69 years old.)

For viewers, this movie is great entertainment. For authors, it's solid gold. Body language? Attitudes? Speech patterns? Appearances? Fantastic plot? It's all here. 

I love writing, letting imaginary people make stuff up and have their way with a plot. But in the case of Bernie Tiede, Marjorie Nugent, and the good folks of Carthage, TX, truth really is stranger than fiction. Bernie is a reminder that as weird as you think you can create it, reality can only be weirder.

So, have you seen Bernie? What did you think? 

(For more on the Bernie situation, see this post:
How Do We Know When Justice is Served?)

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