In 1996, in Carthage, Texas, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede murdered 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent. Shot her in the back, stuffed her body in the big freezer in her garage, and went on about his life. When the police eventually found her and Bernie confessed to her murder, District Attorney Danny Buck ran into a problem—he couldn’t scare up a single juror in Panola County who was willing to put Bernie behind bars. Bernie was a sweet boy, the people of Carthage said, and that bitch had it coming.
This sounds totally crazy, of course, unless you’ve watched Richard Linklater’s Bernie. Spoiler alert: Danny Buck has to move the whole trial to San Augustine to find anyone who’s willing to send Bernie—who, remember, shot an old lady a whole bunch of times in the back!—to prison, but he does it. And when those prison gates clang shut behind Bernie (a marvelous Jack Black) at the end of the movie, you feel devastated. You’ve just seen a great tragedy play out. You don’t spare a thought for Marjorie Nugent. And the way Linklater gets you there is by letting the people of Carthage explain it themselves; the bulk of the narration comes from actual Panola County citizens.
I grew up 50 miles from Mrs. Nugent and her deep freeze. The first time I saw Bernie, I let out a gasp of recognition. I know all these people: the church ladies with their immaculately coordinated outfits; the hunters with their faded, greasy baseball caps; the red-faced car salesman; the proprietress of the local corner store, voice thick with cigarettes and malt liquor. Their voices—I don’t remember the last time I heard a true Southern accent on screen. Most actors try to sound like Scarlett O’Hara, but Scarlett O’Hara was played by Vivien Leigh, a RADA-educated Brit with a posh-ass accent. Hence why your Hollywood Southerners sound like they’ve just come from a passionate snog with Larry Olivier. These folks, though—“that dawg don’t hunt,” snarls one woman, dismissing the rumors that Bernie was gay. “I mean, she’d tear ya a three-bedroom two-bath double-wide asshole,” says a gleeful man describing Mrs. Nugent’s fearsome personality. This is the Southern way of using language; poetic and brutal in the same breath. How many times has my mom called someone “crazy as a road lizard,” a phrase which evokes both whimsy and a reptile’s guts splattered in the left lane of I-49?
You get inured to this violence, living in the South. You take the violence because it’s part and parcel of the beauty. There’s a famous piece of pop art in my hometown: a purple armadillo named Felton, looming fifty feet long on a billboard by the highway. The joke is that you see a lot of armadillos by the highway, but those ones are usually eviscerated and surrounded by flies. It’s a reminder of the violence that awaits as you plunge into the sun-dappled and fragrant piney woods of East Texas.
There’s a scene in Bernie where Danny Buck, showboating for the Big Gulp-clutching, San Augustine jurors, makes a big deal out of the gruesome discovery of Mrs. Nugent’s body. He brings her granddaughter to the witness stand to tearfully explain how she saw the top of Mrs. Nugent’s head barely visible in the freezer beneath her corn, her steak, her pot pies. He brings the actual deep freeze to the courtroom and lifts the lid so the jurors can peer inside and imagine the body, twisted and broken. It’s supposed to be a shocking image, but the jurors’ faces are stolid. They lean back firmly in their chairs. When you grow up in the South, you get used to bodies in the freezer. Many Southern families have a deep freeze on the back porch just for deer carcasses. The taking of life is as much recreational as it is necessary. Guns are omnipresent; Bernie, when he decides to kill Mrs. Nugent, has only to reach out his hand to take hold of the .22 rifle she’d bought to kill the small animals digging up her garden. There’s no squeamishness about the bloody business of death in the South. When I was driving up Highway 31 a few months ago, the roadside was dotted with hand-painted plywood signs advertising taxidermy. Just in case I wanted to buy a dead body to decorate my apartment. Guns, airsoft and paintball are popular here too, you can easily buy the best airsoft aeg at a local store. The kids love to get together with these activities.
Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor (herself as eccentric as any resident of Panola County—before she wrote that short story you had to read in AP English, she was regionally famous as the little girl who owned a chicken that could walk backwards) believed that realistic southern fiction ends up being dismissed as “grotesque” by Northern readers because the most realistic southern fiction takes a good, hard look at the brutal and bizarre parts of life that are exposed like roadkill innards in the South. “To be able to recognize a freak,” she said, “you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological…approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.”
Christ lurks around every corner in the South, and stalks Bernie through every frame of Linklater’s movie. His phone’s lockscreen is a picture of Jesus, and the divine countenance pops up with every one of Mrs. Nugent’s stockbroker’s increasingly frantic phone calls. Dramatically-lit crosses loom behind Bernie, watching as he upsells funeral home clients on fancier coffins.
When you grew up Christian in the South, as I did, it’s easy to miss the brutality of Christianity. The story Christianity tells, of course, is that God showed up one day and we killed him in the worst way we could think of at the time. Linklater’s score is mostly southern gospel songs and hymns. One achingly lovely violin theme recurs throughout the film, playing at the beginning, the end, and the scene in which Bernie methodically fires four shots into Mrs. Nugent’s back. It’s the tune to the Christian hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” an ode to the broken body of Christ. The lyrics rhyme “glory” with “gory.” Southern Christianity feels benign when you’re experiencing it, all casseroles and Precious Moments figurines and ladies in elaborate hats. But scratch the skin a little and you find violence. I grew up attending a small Presbyterian church right next door to a small Baptist church. One Easter, after the egg hunt was over and the younger kids had been sent inside for cookies and juice, one of my friends loaded the eggs—real dyed chicken eggs, not the hollow plastic ones—into his potato gun. A potato gun is essentially a bazooka made with PVC pipe. You load the potato, or egg in this case, into the front end, spray some hairspray into the combustion chamber at the back end, light the hairspray with your dad’s barbecue lighter, and BOOM: a brightly-colored egg which has been sitting out in spring sunshine for hours is soaring over the trees, headed straight for the steeple of the Baptist church.
The thing about most cinematic depictions of the South, from Gone with the Wind right on down through Winter’s Bone and basically every Nicholas Sparks adaptation, is that they miss one thing or the other. You can’t have the brutality of the South without the beauty, and vice versa—mostly vice versa, actually. Those big white plantation houses look amazing on screen, but there are bodies buried in the backyard. The leisurely pace of life that so many Southerners prize—that’s the legacy of slavery. The sweet iced tea on the patio—slavery. The elaborate entertaining, the debutante balls, the faux aristocracy—slavery. The emphasis on family names, on bloodlines—that’s the legacy of slavery, too. The South is a country built on genocide. To be Southern is to be uncomfortably aware that you can’t have your coconut chiffon cake and eat it, too; you can’t have the way of life you prize and not grapple with the truth of its origins. No, I didn’t crack a whip at Caspiana. But I’m too craven, even in 2017, to speak up when a friend’s grandfather uses the n-word in casual conversation, or when a girl I know from high school uses a plantation as the backdrop for her wedding photos. We Southerners all are trying to expiate this inherited guilt, even if we don’t know exactly that that’s what we’re doing. We are violent people, and we’ve built our homes on layers and layers of violence.
When Bernie is convicted and sent to prison, the people of Carthage take it personally. They identify with him. Somewhere deep down, they know they would have pulled the trigger, too. Or maybe not so deep down; self-awareness about our own destructive tendencies is a key component of Southern humor. Walk into one of those sprawling Texas gas station/convenience stores that sell fudge, candles, and brisket by the pound, and you’ll probably find a wall of decorative plaques with sayings like, “In the South, we don’t hide our crazy…we parade it on the front porch and give it a cocktail!” One of Bernie’s dear little old lady friends visits him in prison, and she’s furious. She wants the warden to let Bernie out to sing at her funeral some distant day. “I told him you went temporar’ly insane. We’re all going insane sooner or later…I mean, that’s the way I look at it.”
Another elderly woman, around Mrs. Nugent’s age, delivers the last word in Bernie. Softly, sitting in her floral living room, she says: “I don’t care what he did.” She pauses. “Yes, I do care. It was wrong. But I believe that if Bernie were truly sorry for what he did, and would ask God’s forgiveness, God would forgive him. And after all, that’s all that really matters.”
We can never undo the killing that made the South. We can’t un-lay these foundations. Southerners, Americans, Westerners, the whole human race—we are all greedy, self-centered, one desperate moment away from great violence. This is what the people of Carthage know: we are all of us as guilty as Bernie. So Bernie must be forgiven; otherwise, what hope is there for us?