Bernie – Movie Review

Bernie is the rather unusual true story of Carthage, Texas funeral director Bernie Tiede.  Bernie (played pitch-perfect by Jack Black[1]) quickly became a favorite in the town with his generous nature and caring heart.  One of the townsmen said, “If it was good for the community, Bernie did it, no matter what.  He really dedicated himself to Carthage.”  He was great at his job, meticulously preparing the bodies and making the funeral home more warm and comforting.  He was a talented musician and actor, often singing for funerals, as well as the church choir and leading local play productions.  It was said that he “had a money problem—he was overly generous.”  He gave everything he had to others, and had a special heart for the “DLOL’s—the Dear Little Old Ladies” and the widows.

He was so especially gifted with reaching out to the little old widows that he was the only one able to befriend the very wealthy and very bitter Mrs. Nugent.  She was as hated by the townsfolk as he was loved.  Bernie showed her kindness the way he did everyone, but it was a surprise to Mrs. Nugent who said, “Can’t think of anyone who’s been that nice to me in 50 years.”  It wasn’t long before Bernie became her travelling companion, friend, and business manager.

It also wasn’t long before Marjorie Nugent became her bitter, controlling, mean-spirited self toward Bernie.  She was jealous and possessive of him and treated him horribly, but, as one of the people in town said it, “Bernie was so nice, so accommodating, so unwilling to hurt anybody’s feelings…he just can’t tell anybody to p*** off”—that included Mrs. Nugent.  Gentle natured Bernie just kept on bottling up his frustration and sweetly accommodating her tyrannical demands—until he snapped and shot her “four times in the back with the armadillo gun.”

Bernie put Marjorie’s body in the deep freeze to preserve it until he could figure a way to plan a proper funeral for her (everyone deserves a proper burial, even Mrs. Nugent).  It was nine months before the town realized she was gone and the body was found.  In that time, Bernie bought nine cars…and then gave them all to other people, while his own car was financed.  He bought struggling businesses and then gave them back to the original owners.  All in all, he spent $600,000 of her money (which was all bequeathed to him anyway) and gave every bit of it to the town of Carthage.  Once the body was found, Bernie readily confessed to her murder.

The trial had to be moved to another town.  Usually a trial is moved because the locals have prejudged the defendant as guilty and the defendant wouldn’t receive a fair trial.  In this case it was the opposite.  Bernie was so loved (and Marjorie Nugent so hated, though that was far less relevant) that it was evident no one in the town would find him guilty.  In an unusual twist, Bernie’s trial had to be moved in order for the prosecution to get a fair trial.

I won’t tell you how the actual trial ends; see the movie and you’ll find out[2].  What I do want to discuss is the concept of the law.  Bernie did it.  Bernie murdered Mrs. Nugent.  We may sympathize with why he did it.  We may feel completely assured that it was a result of extreme circumstances and he would never do anything like that again.  We—or more accurately, the people of Carthage—may love and adore Bernie and want him to be found “not-guilty” because he was such an asset to the community.  That may all be true, but it doesn’t negate the fact that he was guilty.  He broke the law.

Bernie broke the law, and, according to that law, a penalty has to be paid.  The law requires that a man pay for the wrongs he does.  It’s not just our American government’s law that demands this, it’s something inherent in the law of humanity.  It’s across all cultures and all religions.  Most importantly, it’s the way God’s law works too.  Sin requires a sacrifice, a payment for that sin.  Romans 6:23 explains the payment that is due for sin: “for the wages of sin is death”—death is the payment for sin.  In the Old Testament, a pure, spotless animal, often a lamb, was sacrificed for sin as a symbol of what was to come.   In the New Testament, Jesus, the Lamb of God, came and died in payment for all sins for all time.  That’s why the rest of Romans 6:23 says that, even though the “wages of sin is death,” the “free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The reality is that we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[3]  We are all in Bernie’s shoes.  We all stand condemned by the law.  No matter how understandable our sins may be, no matter how likeable we are, we all stand guilty and condemned by the law of God.  It’s true that Bernie did a lot of good things.  In fact, it was said that he did “more to bless the town of Carthage than anyone else,” but all the good he had done couldn’t erase the bad.  It’s not a math equation.  It’s not true that (+1) + (-1) = 0, not when it comes to sin.  A good deed is nice, but it doesn’t erase a bad deed—not for Bernie, not for me, not for you.

We have all sinned, and those sins must be paid for.  Either we are going to the pay the penalty (death) or Jesus is.  The great thing is, it’s our choice who pays.  We can accept Jesus’ payment, or we can pay the penalty ourselves; you and I get to choose.  The law must be satisfied, but God’s grace to us is that He will pay it and we don’t have to.

Questions for Discussion:

  • Do you think Bernie should pay for what he did?  Or are you like the townspeople who loved and trusted Bernie so much they felt his good negated any bad he had done?
  • Do you think that your good deeds can ever erase your bad deeds?
  • The choice is yours—which have you chosen: to pay the penalty for your sins yourself, or to let Jesus pay for it?

Click here to read a collection of quotes from Bernie.

-By Stacey Tuttle-


[1] Please note, you don’t have to be a Jack Black fan to appreciate this performance.  Many of us who saw it would attest to that.

[2] I rarely editorialize about whether or not I recommend people see a movie—but I can’t help but think that anyone from Texas, or the South, or a small town would have to get a kick out of this movie…or anyone who enjoys making fun of people from TX, the South and/or small towns.   J  The movie was hilarious.

[3] Romans 3:23