Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” is a compelling, wholly unique film. It’s perhaps the first dramedocumentary, equal parts comedy, drama and documentary.
“Bernie” tells the story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director in a small East Texas town who has a penchant for taking up with old widows, particularly Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).
Bernie has a reputation for being arguably the nicest guy in the town. He is active in his local church, is caring and friendly with most everyone, and never knew a stranger. Marjorie was just the opposite: mean and spiteful, hateful some would say. Bernie and Marjorie were unlikely friends but friends nonetheless, extremely close ones, and soon Bernie has weaseled his way into her personal affairs.
It’s not hard to see where the film goes from there; Marjorie ends up dead and Bernie has to find a way to pretend she’s still alive.
Fear not, there is no “Weekend at” in this “Bernie”; Tiede simply isolates the world from Marjorie, inventing various stories as to why she’s not around and still managing her life as normal.
The film is largely told in documentary style, with the real-life citizens of the town relaying the story in documentary, in-front-of-the-camera style coupled with dramatized segments starring Black, MacLaine and other actors, including Matthew McConaughey as Danny Buck, the district attorney who prosecuted Tiede.
It’s a brilliant stroke that I didn’t catch until the closing credits, one that adds a layer of realism and an undercurrent of intentional/unintentional comedy, not to mention a moral discussion to the proceedings given that the majority of the people who appear on camera deny Bernie’s guilt even after he confesses, then rationalizes away, his culpability in the crime.
There’s a streak of understatement a mile wide in “Bernie,” and it’s in those segments between the documentary interviews that the film hits its stride as the townsfolk refuse to let a little thing like a clear-cut confession stand in the way of what they perceive as the truth. It’s both an indictment of the stodgy small-town know-it-all conservative values and an interesting question of morality. Is there a time where murder should be overlooked or perhaps forgiven?
Bernie is by all accounts downtrodden, verbally abused if not physically and not allowed to live his own life, but is financially bound to this woman, whose own family has spoken to her in recent years only to announce they’re suing her for her money.
Black disappears into this role as much as a star with a persona as large as his could be asked to, hiding behind a mousy mustache and a haircut so conservative it couldn’t stand out more if it were a mohawk. There are nice layers to his personality, from the questions of his sexuality (which Linklater wisely mentions but downplays strongly through the film) to the simmering rage that hides behind Tiede’s cheerful-Christian-at-all-costs attitude. He’s as fascinating a character as I’ve seen in a film this year.
“Bernie” is one of those films that is destined to fly under the radar, languishing in what passes for arthouse cinemas these days. It’s a strong, engaging, often funny find that should be on everyone’s must-see list.