Bernie: Can sweet people do evil things?

Posted: January 22, 2013 by John C. Kwasny, Ph.D. in Drama, True Story
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BernieNo, this is not a review of Weekend at Bernie’s, that classic 1989 dark comedy about a wealthy dead man who is kept “alive” by his two idiot employees. Ironically, this Bernie is also about a dead rich person who the town thinks is still alive–but it’s a woman this time, and is actually a true story. The film stars Jack Black as Bernie, the sweetest man in small town Carthage, Texas. Shirley MacLaine is the wealthy widow that he ends up murdering, and Matthew McConaughey is the quirky D.A. who prosecutes Bernie. You need to watch Bernie simply for Jack Black’s incredible performance as the lead character. Personally, I’m not a big fan of his movies–other than Kung Fu Panda–but he really captures this part perfectly.

Spoiler alert! Bernie Tiede comes to a small East Texas town and becomes its assistant funeral director. He is a chubby, partially effeminate man who the old ladies find intoxicating because of his sweetness to grieving families. The movie opens with Bernie training young morticians in the art of preparing a dead body for a viewing, as well as how to care for the bereaved. But Bernie is much more than an incredibly sensitive funeral director. He is the lead tenor in the Methodist church choir. He teaches Sunday School. He volunteers his time to teach drama at the local high school. He even acts and sings in the high school musicals. And the list goes on. Bernie finds time to help almost everybody in town in some way.

Bernie’s practice is to visit widows a few days after a funeral to check on them–especially the elderly ones. On one such occasion, he reaches out to the richest (and meanest) widow in town, Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine). Gradually, he becomes her personal assistant, taking her to dinner, traveling with her, and even handling her financial affairs. The townspeople don’t know if Bernie has become her paramour or is just being sweet (because he may be gay anyway). In the end, Marjorie becomes so controlling of his life that Bernie shoots her in the back five times and stores her body in the freezer. For nine months, he goes about life as usual, giving the appearance that she is still alive, and just reclusive. Only the local D.A. (McConaughey) and Marjorie’s stockbroker are suspicious, since they never succumbed to the saccharine sweetness of Bernie.

What’s fabulous about this movie is how the true story is interspersed with the “real” townspeople of Carthage, giving their play-by-play analysis of the entire tragedy. These characters really capture the feel of small town Texas, that’s for sure. And, unfortunately, they are pretty typical Bible Belt evangelicals too, albeit on the naive side of the spectrum. With their descriptions of Bernie, you would think they were describing Jesus Himself–which caused quite a dilemma when Marjorie was discovered to be murdered. Even then, many of the people of the town either dismissed the idea of Bernie’s guilt, or found ways to rationalize how he could have committed such great evil. In the end, the trial actually had to be moved to another small East Texas town because there was no way Bernie could have had a fair trial–he was too universally LOVED!

Which brings me to the main question of this post: Why do we have trouble believing that sweet, kind people can do evil things? We seem to be able to understand the Adolph Hitlers and Osama bin Ladens of this world. After all, evil people do evil things, right? But even then, if evil people show the right amount of remorse and sorrow, we are tempted to exonerate them, no matter how horrible the crime. So it is even worse when a “good” person does something really out of character! Bernie had done so many great things for so many people that it was beyond belief that he even had an evil thought, much less commit murder.

The problem is that so many people, even evangelical Christians, don’t really believe in total depravity. I see it in the eyes of parents when they talk about how unbelievable it is that their “good” child could have done such bad things. They attempt to explain their child’s sins away, blaming friends, fatigue, or some bit of misfortune. In this humanistic age we live in, many do not want to believe that people really are depraved and sinful.

But the truth is that there is no such thing as a good person. Jesus himself said: “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone.” (Luke 18:19). When we don’t believe in total depravity and the deep-seated wickedness in the heart of man, then we will easily close our eyes and excuse behavior instead of expose it. Bernie is a film that exposes our desire to see the world as a place where good people do only good things and bad people do all the bad things. This sort of thinking doesn’t leave room for a good God who alone saves even the “sweet” people of this world!

  1. Kelly says:

    Watched BERNIE this weekend. It was delightfully dark. Jack Black was masterful. The towns people really made it for me though.

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