NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Kevin D
The film opens with Bernie Tiende (Jack Black) delivering a lecture for a mortician's class on the cosmetic preparation of a body for viewing. Bernie instructs the class on how to fix a corpse's nails, hair, eyelids, lips, and body position so that mourners recognize the person and think they look the best they've ever looked (if unfortunately in a casket).
Interviews with what's purported to be actual townspeople are interspersed with scenes of Bernie doing things like driving, going to a barbeque restaurant, and moving around the small town of Cathage in east Texas; the interviewees all claim to love Bernie, though they talk about him decidedly in the past tense. The film alternates between these documentary-like scenes and scenes shot like a traditional movie without the fourth wall being broken like that.
Bernie Tiende is currently serving a life sentence in prison for the murder of Marge Nugent and the film is the story of how Bernie came to know Marge and how he killed her and got away with hiding her body in a freezer for nine months until Marge's family and her stock broker exposed what Bernie had done.
Bernie came to Carthage in the late 1980s after completing an associate's degree in mortuary science and landing a job at a Carthage funeral home. He quickly thrived in his job as the assistant funeral director there because he was not only a natural salesman but because he also related so well to the elderly people in town. Carthage had an oil and gas boom in the 1960s and a lot of the people who made a great deal of money back then were starting to pass away in the 90s and 2000s; Bernie started befriending the widows in Carthage after he'd buried their husbands.
The meanest woman in Carthage was Marge Nugent (Shirley McClain), whose husband recently died. After her husband's death, Marge took over the business he ran, such as the bank, and ran them with a spiteful iron fist -- where she'd do things like decline people's loans just because she enjoyed telling them no, etc. Interviews with purported townsfolk establish that Marge was considered the Devil incarnate in Carthage. Through the years, Marge had alienated all of her family members. She declared war on her sisters when her mother died, and fought them for pieces of china and other keepsakes. Marge's granddaughters sued her for access to their trust fund, which Marge fought them on. With her husband dead, Marge was left alone and so Bernie started paying visits, bringing her flowers and other little gifts to ingratiate himself.
In interviews, the townspeople (including Bernie's boss at the mortuary) insist Bernie befriended these "little blue haired ladies" out of the goodness of his own heart and because he just liked taking care of people, but the viewer can judge for her or himself whether this was a scheme of Bernie's to get into the good graces of rich old women who didn't have any family or friends (besides him).
One day, after he'd brought her a basket of bubble bath and a box of chocolate cupcakes, Marge invites Bernie into her home and their friendship began. He started taking her to church with him, where he sang in the choir, taught Sunday school, and involved himself in all sorts of activities. Bernie and Marge started having lunch around town...and after a while they started taking road trips to hear classical music in other cities.
Interviews with townsfolk show that people started to talk about this unlikely pairing, with everyone calling Bernie a saint for putting up with Marge. She would berate him in public, call him stupid, and yell at him and he'd take it politely -- with onlookers thinking he was just the most kind and generous Christian for putting up with all of Marge's abuse and being this friend to the friendless, as he was.
Bernie and Marge started taking trips to see Broadway shows...they took a cruise on the Queen Mary to Europe...they went to Egypt, Russia, and tropical islands. Marge footed the travel bills, which cost more than $100,000/year for first class travel around the world.
People in Carthage started whispering that Bernie and Marge were involved in a sexual relationship, with people commenting on him kissing her in public. This was at odds with the fact that Bernie was clearly gay, which the townspeople also noticed -- citing as evidence that he had a subscription to Men's Health Magazine but was overweight, so he was not reading it for exercise tips. But the fact that Bernie was so dedicated to the church made people doubt he was really gay since they found those two things to be incompatible.
Marge's stockbroker Lonnie didn't like Bernie from the very beginning, though Marge insisted Lonnie be nice to Bernie. Marge had investments and business responsibilities with the bank and other things that she owned that required her to sign papers, meet people every few months for meetings, etc. Bernie took on the role of Marge's "business manager" and started assuming some of these duties himself, but Lonnie insisted on speaking with and seeing Marge every now and again.
Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConnaughey) was the local District Attorney who was known for pulling high profile stunts whenever he had an election coming up. His most famous stunt was arresting five deadbeat dads at once for neglecting child support payments by tricking them to come out to a "put your hand on a truck and keep it there the longest" contest that was a big deal in town. The film peppers interviews with Danny Buck throughout the leadup to Bernie's attack on Marge...since Danny Buck would revel in the publicity of this case.
The day Bernie snapped came at random and with no warning. The film showed a few scenes of Marge berating and abusing Bernie...and essentially taking over his entire life and making him her personal servant. Bernie had been shown washing Marge, clipping her toenails, running her errands, and even carrying a beeper and having to race to call Marge back when she beeped him. Marge got violent and crazed and erupted at many people, including a black gardener she fired while using racial epithets against him. What drove Bernie the craziest was how Marge ate...and how she insisted on chewing everything, even refried beans, 30 times or more before swallowing it. Marge thought Bernie was a sissy because he couldn't handle a gun well...the gun she insisted on keeping in the house to kill armadillos that hung around her garden.
After being screamed at by Marge one day while they were preparing to go to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, Bernie snapped and grabbed the armadillo gun and shot Marge four times in the back of the head. Then he picked up her body and put it into her freezer in the garage and then covered her with frozen meat and TV dinners. Then Bernie went about his day and attended his rehearsal for The Music Man as if nothing happened.
So, after being Marge's "business manager" for two years and having access to all of her money, Bernie shot and killed his "meal ticket", as the townspeople called it in their interviews. For nine months, Bernie pretended Marge was either sleeping, had just stepped out, or was on the other line when people came by to see her or called on the phone. During this time, Bernie used Marge's money to buy people around town cars, houses, and businesses...such as the "Bootin Scoot Western Wear Store" and a store that sold trophies. Bernie also bought the town an airport and a bunch of planes, one of which he liked to fly himself.
Lonnie the stockbroker was suspicious almost immediately and kept calling to speak to Marge. Her grandchildren got suspicious when Marge didn't give her great-grandchildren Christmas money they always got every year. Another person became suspicious when Marge never called to thank the person for a turkey he sent.
Lonnie finally got the sheriff to start asking Bernie questions when the stockbroker came to town and kept hearing the same story from people: that when they'd go to see Marge, they'd be told she was just in the other room sleeping and that Bernie would get her to sign papers but they'd never see her actually sign them. Bernie told the sheriff that Marge was in a nursing home in a different part of the state but didn't want her relatives bothering her because she hated them. The sheriff was willing to believe Bernie, but the stockbroker persisted.
Finally, Marge's granddaughter, the stockbroker, and the sheriff came to Marge's house when Bernie was not there and looked around. It did not take them long to find Marge in the freezer in the garage (because a deputy wondered why the freezer was taped shut). DA Danny Buck immediately took to the TV to grandstand, calling for a "manhunt" for Bernie in a tristate area.
Well, Bernie was easily found...on that particular day he was treating a little league team to lunch at a restaurant. He was arrested and immediately confessed to the murder, saying he just couldn't take any more. He then broke down in tears and said he was sorry and should atone for his sins.
The town of Carthage rallied to support Bernie, telling anyone who would listen that Marge was an evil woman and that though Bernie was wrong to kill her, he was surely not the first person to think about killing her. Everywhere that Danny Buck went, people made a point to tell him that they would acquit Bernie if they were on his jury for the trial.
Danny Buck then took the extraordinary step of asking for (and receiving) a change of venue for the trial because Bernie was just too popular and beloved in the town for the DA to get a conviction. The judge allowed the change of venue because Bernie used so much of Marge's money to buy the affections of Carthage residents. In addition to the cars and other gifts, Bernie pledged a fortune to the church for a new building and also gave an elaborate playhouse to some kids in town. The DA saw to it that everything Bernie gave to people was confiscated, but the people loved Bernie still anyway.
The trial was moved to San Augustine and Danny Buck's strategy was to paint Bernie as someone "cultured" and into living the high life off Marge's money. This was an effective strategy since San Augustine was dirt poor and described as "redneck". The jury disliked Bernie immediately. Though Bernie's lawyer did a good cross examination of Marge's granddaughter (the one who sued her own grandmother), it didn't matter. Bernie was convicted of first degree murder.
At the trial, it was noted that Bernie didn't plan the murder because he could have gotten rid of the body. He had a plane, after all, and could have flown over the Gulf and dropped the body in the ocean and it would have never been found. It seemed that Bernie always knew he'd be caught and it was just a matter of time, since he put Marge in the freezer. He didn't even try to really hide her, but he did make sure she ultimately got the funeral she was entitled to.
The film ends with Bernie in prison, where he's actually enjoying himself. He sings in the choir and teaches classes for other inmates. He even runs cooking classes in the prison kitchen. Many of the little blue haired ladies who adored him in Carthage still visit him...and write letters to the warden asking that he be allowed out of prison to come and sing at their funerals one day.
As the credits start to roll, it's noted that Marge Nugent was ultimately buried next to her husband and that Bernie is in prison for life and not eligible for parole until he's 89 years old (that would be roughly 50 years after he went into prison for the murder of Marge Nugent).