Bernie Review By Adam
Prolific Texan filmmaker Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly) is back in cinemas with his latest film Bernie. In usual Linklater style, Bernie is an unusual film with charm to spare, but it also happens to be laugh out loud funny, enthralling, profoundly sad and ultimately one of the year’s best films.
Discussing the plot of Bernie is a difficult proposition, as one of the great joys of Bernie is watching this amazing, true tale unfold. Seriously, I can’t even say what genre this film is without giving up clues, and for God’s sake don’t read the Wikipedia entry — you’ll thank me later. Set in the close-knit community of Carthage, Texas in the mid-90s, Bernie follows Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a devoutly religious, tightly-wound man of impeccable manners. Bernie is a perfectionist in every element of his life — from his job as funeral director to the social engagements of Carthage, Bernie always brings his A-game. It would seem that Bernie has an extreme fear of being disliked, as he charms and displays generosity to all that he encounters with little thought or condition. Bernie’s perfect strike record hits a bump when he encounters Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a recently widowed woman who is so mean that she has become a town myth. Bernie becomes determined to win over Majorie at any cost and soon a friendship blossoms, one that will have ramifications for all of Carthage.
Director Richard Linklater takes what is, outwardly, a sensationalist tale and discovers a truly human undercurrent running through it. While ostensibly a ‘Jack Black comedy’ (and make no mistake about it, Bernie is a laugh riot) this film is so much more. Linklater structures this film like an oral history; all matter of folks from Carthage chime in on the life of Bernie Tiede, often straight to camera. At first they appear to be great, natural actors, but in a surprising turn — one that gives this film a quiet power — these are the real townspeople of Carthage recounting the events as they themselves perceived them. Rarely on film has a community been captured so wholeheartedly. While there are a multitude of ‘redneck’ moments that make you laugh, these people are also capable of breathtaking kindness – Linklater obviously has a huge affinity for his subjects.
Jack Black is phenomenal in the titular role. This came as little surprise to me as I have been a fan of his work for over a decade. People may perceive him as a comedy hack (which he is often guilty of being), but many forget that Black cut his teeth on films like Dead Man Walking and Jesus’ Son before rolling out his current comedic incarnation in High Fidelity. When he wants to he can be an effective, dramatic performer.
While Bernie calls on Black to display a serious side, he is a riot in this role. Linklater knows how to get the best out of Black (this was no more evident than in their smash hit School of Rock) and he gets Black to repress any sort of overt mugging. The majority of Bernie’s laughs come from how deadpan Black is. Under Black’s interpretation it is almost impossible to get a grip on Bernie’s motivations. Why is he so nice? Is he psychotic? Gay? Or just a bona fide Christian? In a perfect world, Black would receive serious award consideration for his portrayal of Bernie Tiede.
While the majority of the supporting cast is made of non-actors, two big names share headlining credit with Black: Shirely MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. It is great to see the Oscar wining MacLaine back on the big screen. The role of Marjorie could easily slip into the clichéd, but MacLaine brings just the right element of mischief to keep us guessing: is Marjorie a hard-done-by old timer or a sadistic bitch? McConaughey’s Danny Buck Davidson operates as a kind of cipher for the audience. His lawman is seemingly the only logical character in Bernie and by that notion he becomes a sort of villain of the piece. One of the recurring themes of Bernie is the idea of tribal justice; if a society accepts a person and their actions, who is the law to intervene? McConaughey has been on a hot-streak lately (Magic Mike, Killer Joe), primarily by eschewing his normal demeanour, and this performance — all silver, straightened hair and bewildered mannerisms — is another indelible one.
Linklater and cinematographer Dick Pope have shot Bernie in a sunny, matter-of-fact way that makes you automatically suspect something is amiss. Everything is so nice and controlled that they elicit laughs from just how perfect everything seems. Linklater knows that this is a complete character piece and, except from the interviews to camera, he does little to obscure his performers.
This review is a little cagey, but I believe it has to be. To give away what happens in Bernie would be a crime. This is one of those films that twists and turns in truly unexpected ways. For all of its clever plot mechanics (which were startlingly forged by real life), it is the themes of Bernie which make it so special. This film tackles some major issues and ultimately is about the currency of kindness: is being a good man enough to get you out of anything? Bernie is a minor masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.