June 16, 2011 (Los Angeles Film Festival)
April 27, 2012 (United States)
United States (English)
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth
Writer/director Richard Linklater hails from Texas. He has used it as the backdrop for several of his films (namely "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker," which is one of the most influential independent films I have seen). In "Bernie" East Texas, particularly the small town of Carthage, is given its time in the limelight, though not for reasons any of its residents would have imagined or hoped for.
A town is only as quaint as those who live in it and we get to meet a whole crop of the men and women who call Carthage home in a series of video interviews. Mixing the talking heads mechanic from documentary film with traditional storytelling places "Bernie" on another plane. It challenges conventions, which Linklater has been doing for years, and straddles the line between fiction and non-fiction. From the onset we are teased with theatrical title cards: "What you're fixin' to see... A true story." The story of Bernie Tiede is very true, but where the artifice begins and ends as on display in this production, is sometimes hard to tell. I still do not know how many of the "townsfolk" are the real deal. I do not need to know though.
Jack Black plays Bernie, who was not born in Carthage like so many, but rather ended up there. Working primarily as an assistant to Carthage's mortician, he helped many cope with their losses (especially them DLOLs = dear little old ladies). You could hear his singing voice at the Church on Sunday. You could hear it again rehearsing town plays on the weekdays. He quickly became a loved soul of this microcosm. Even Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a widowed millionaire who was mean to everybody, took a liking to this Bernie. You will too.
When the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie escalates we start getting interviews with Danny Buck Davidson, the local DA. He is played by Matthew McConaughey who is pulling a "Jessica Chastain of 2011" this year (can we please coin that?). Besides Nugent's financial clerk, Danny Buck is the only one in the world suspicious about Bernie. When Nugent has stopped appearing in public the mystery grows for Carthage, but not for us. We have been following Bernie since the very beginning and so we know what he has done, we just do not know what is going to happen next.
Jack Black nails the performance and sticks the landing. As iconic an American actor as he is, Black dissolves into this character by giving Bernie its sincere due. His choir voice rivals his Tenacious D-ness (or what you saw of him in "School of Rock," a former Linklater project) and the way he reacts in key emotional scenes is heartbreaking. Bernie has this cheerful and in-control facade, but we glimpse behind the curtain. MacLaine's mannerisms and looks are that of a rich, old widow. McConaughey is arm-foldingly sure but willing to lean in close for the proof. I could go on, but the point is that these three stars each have a distinct physicality to their performances. Their faces wash amidst the rest of Carthage, who look nothing like movie stars. Certain cameos of that bunch are further highlights along the drive, such as Sonny Davis (you'll definitely recall him as he is the one who lays out the geography of Texas for us in a most informative way.)
I could continue to sing the praises for "Bernie," (though not as good as Bernie himself would do), but I want you to experience some of its charms for yourself. After being highly-recommended to me by a number of people I finally caught up with it after its theatrical run. Not a lot of people saw "Bernie." It is a rather experimental film and its subject matter lacks killer robots, bridesmaid bimbos, or superheroes. Still, it is a darn good time, curiously moving and one of this year's very best.
CONTENT: brief strong language, some violence, and mature subject matter