The film went on to receive critical acclaim for its direction, accuracy to the real-life event, "Town Gossips" element, and particular praise for Jack Black's portrayal of Tiede, with many calling it his best performance to date.
In small-town Carthage, Texas in 1996, local assistant mortician Bernie Tiede, a beloved member of the community, becomes the only friend of the wealthy, recently widowed Marjorie Nugent, who is widely considered cold and unpleasant by the other townsfolk. Tiede, in his late 30s, and the elderly Nugent quickly become inseparable, frequently traveling and lunching together, though Tiede's social life becomes hindered by Nugent's constant and sometimes abusive need for his attention.
Tiede murders Nugent after growing weary of the emotional toll of her possessiveness, persistent nagging, and non-stop putdowns. For nine months, Tiede takes advantage of her poor reputation to excuse her absence with few questions while using her money to support local businesses and neighbors. Finally, Nugent's stockbroker uses Tiede's neglect of previously agreed upon payments to enlist the help of her estranged family. This results in an authorized police search of her house that concludes with the discovery of Nugent's corpse in a freezer chest.
The local district attorney, Danny Buck Davidson, charges Tiede with first-degree (premeditated) murder. Tiede is arrested and he soon confesses that he killed Nugent while claiming her emotional abuse as a mitigating circumstance. Despite this confession, many citizens of Carthage still rally to Tiede's defense, with some even asserting that Nugent deserved to die. Frustrated, Davidson successfully requests a change of venue to the town of San Augustine, 50 miles away, to avoid selecting a biased jury. Despite the absence of evidence of premeditation, Tiede is found guilty as charged and imprisoned for life.Jack Black as Bernie Tiede
Shirley MacLaine as Marjorie "Marge" Nugent
Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck Davidson
Brady Coleman as Scrappy Holmes
Richard Robichaux as Lloyd Hornbuckle
Rick Dial as Don Leggett
Brandon Smith as Sheriff Huckabee
Larry Jack Dotson as the Rev. Woodard
Merrilee McCommas as Molly
Mathew Greer as Carl
Gabriel Luna as Kevin
Kay Epperson as Townsperson - spoke with Bernie (Jack Black) in prison scene
Principal photography took 22 days, during September–October 2010, in Bastrop, Smithville, Georgetown, Lockhart, Carthage and Austin, Texas.
The film creates uncertainty by mixing documentary conventions with fictional elements. There are talking-head interviews with Carthage town gossips; some of the talking heads are performers, while some are townspeople playing themselves.
Linklater said the screenplay he co-wrote with Skip Hollandsworth was a boring read, and that "the gossip element almost kept the film from being made, because it reads boring. I said, 'But they’ll be funny characters. I could just imagine the accents.'”
The film made its world premiere as the opening night film of the 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival. Millennium Entertainment released the film on April 27, 2012.
On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a 89% "Certified Fresh" rating, based on 150 reviews, with an average rating of 7.5 out of 10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Richard Linklater's Bernie is a gently told and unexpectedly amusing true-crime comedy that benefits from an impressive performance by Jack Black". On Metacritic, the film has a 75 out of 100, based on 35 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times enjoyed the film, giving it 3 and a half stars out of 4. He would go on to give particular praise to Jack Black's performance as well as Linklater's direction, saying "His genius was to see Jack Black as Bernie Tiede."
Critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film a masterpiece, describing it as a companion piece to Linklater's 1998 film The Newton Boys and saying the writing is "so good that the humor can’t be reduced to simple satire; a whole community winds up speaking through the film, and it has a lot to say. In fact, it’s hard to think of many other celebrations of small-town American life that are quite as rich, as warm, and as complexly layered, at least within recent years."
In a positive review in Slate, Dana Stevens lauded the performances of the three leads, saying that both Black and McConaughey are at their best when working with Linklater. But she reserved her highest praise for "the good people of Carthage, who, sitting on porches or the hoods of their cars, recount the strange story of Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent".
Marc Savlov of The Austin Chronicle said:
If I hadn't already read Skip Hollandsworth's Texas Monthly article recounting the tragicomic tale of Carthage's assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede, I'd swear this film adaptation was based on one of Joe R. Lansdale's East Texas gothics. As ever, truth proves itself stranger than fiction and the human heart (which is stranger and more inscrutable than anything). And Jack Black redeems himself (for Gulliver's Travels, among other things) with a subtly quirky performance that's one of his personal best.
Gregory Ellwood of HitFix said the film is "not as funny as Linklater wants it to be...". But he went on to praise Black's performance: "Black is simply great... making you believe someone like Bernie could really exist and while accenting his funny characteristics also portraying him as three-dimensional character."
Eric Kohn of indieWIRE called it "an oddly endearing love letter to Southern eccentricities". He found the film hard to categorize, saying: "Bernie is a shape-shifting genre vehicle set apart from anything else in Linklater’s career. There’s a loose sensibility to this mockumentary—mysterious comedy? comedic mystery? It’s tough to categorize as anything beyond an enjoyable experience."
Mary Pols, writing in Time, gave the film an unfavorable review: "You would be hard pressed to find a film that feels more true to a reporter’s experience of an event. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, at least not cinematically... The movie translation is playful and cunning but never escapes the reportorial trap; observation after the fact rarely matches the energy of experience... The big problem with playing this same note over and over again is that while the pairing of a 81-year-old harridan and the 39-year-old effeminate mensch, whether off on a cruise together or dining at the local taqueria, may sound funny, it’s mostly just sad."
Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly named the film one of the top ten films of 2012 calling it a "deviously droll light-comic tabloid docudrama".
The making of the film, based on an article in Texas Monthly magazine by Skip Hollandsworth, who also co-wrote the comedic film with Linklater, divided citizens of Carthage, Texas, the small town in East Texas where the Nugent murder occurred. In the film, Linklater includes interviews with several Carthage residents about their feelings of support for Bernie Tiede. Some citizens hope the film will stimulate an increase in tourism, while others have voiced anger that a comedy film was derived from the events surrounding the murder of an 81-year-old woman.
"You can't make a dark comedy out of a murder," says Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (portrayed in the film by McConaughey). "This movie is not historically accurate," adds Davidson, who says that Nugent's story is missing. "The movie does not tell her side of the story."
"If it was fiction it might be funny, but this was a real person in a real town and no, I don't think it's funny at all," says Carthage resident Toni Clements who knew both Tiede and Nugent.
Owners of the Hawthorn Funeral Home in Carthage, Texas, where Bernie Tiede met Marjorie Nugent, refused to allow the film to use the name of the funeral home in the movie. “We felt we did not want the Hawthorn Funeral Home name or family name thought of in a dark comedy... you always know locally these are real people and families so there is a sting.”
"I've now seen the movie Bernie twice and, except for a few insignificant details ... it tells the story pretty much the way it happened," Joe Rhodes, Nugent's nephew, wrote in The New York Times Magazine shortly before the film's general release. His cousin Rod, Nugent's only child, did not return his calls and had his lawyer send Rhodes a letter strongly insinuating the possibility of legal action. "I guarantee he won't like it."
Having seen the film, Austin-based attorney Jodi Cole met with the director, Richard Linklater, for further information. After meeting with Tiede himself in prison, she began work on a habeas corpus petition in his case, raising issues not addressed in his previous direct appeal. Tiede was released from his life sentence on $10,000 bail in May 2014 with the condition that he live with Linklater in Austin, Texas. Nugent's granddaughter expressed shock that the release was granted, specifically citing the influence of the film's depiction of Tiede.
On January 2, 2015, an Austin, Texas news channel reported that the district attorney agreed to release Bernie Tiede and was not ruling out a future prosecution. Panola County prosecutor Danny Buck Davidson said that he met with the family of Marjorie Nugent and that the film led to successful efforts to have Tiede released early from a life sentence. Out on bond, Tiede was due back in court March 2015. Davidson eventually agreed that Tiede was wrongly sentenced for first-degree murder when he deserved a lesser sentence. On April 22, 2016, after a resentencing hearing in Henderson, Texas, a jury deliberated for four-and-a-half hours, and Tiede was sentenced to serve a prison term of 99 years to life.
Bernie earned nominations for Best Feature and Best Ensemble Performance at the 2012 Gotham Awards. The film was nominated for Best Feature at the 2012 Independent Spirit Awards, while Black received a nomination for Best Male Lead. The National Board of Review included Bernie in their Top 10 Independent Films. The Broadcast Film Critics Association nominated Bernie for Best Comedy. Black earned a nomination for Best Actor in a Comedy, while MacLaine was nominated for Best Actress in a Comedy.
Jack Black's performance as Bernie Tiede earned him a Golden Globe nomination.
A reader survey by the Los Angeles Times named it "most under-appreciated" film of 2012, from a shortlist of seven films selected by the newspaper.
Bernie won Rotten Tomatoes' 14th annual Golden Tomato award for the best reviewed comedy released in 2012.