"Everybody's describing Bernie Tiede like he's an angel. Well he's an angel alright... an angel of death."
Richard Linklater is a baffling director to me. Like a lot of directors, he goes through phases. Early in his career, he seemed interested in directing movies about aimless small town teenagers (Slacker, Dazed & Confused, SubUrbia). Then he went through a phase where he was obsessed with rotoscope animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly). There was also his man-child becomes unlikely mentor to children phase (School of Rock, Bad News Bears). Then he has some films which defy categorization like Fast Food Nation & his latest film Bernie.
Bernie tells the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black, in a revelatory performance), an assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, TX, who is regarded by everyone in town as one of the nicest men ever to walk the face of the earth. Using a faux-documentary technique lifted from Warren Beatty's Reds, the film interweaves Tiede's tale with interviews from the real people of Carthage, as well as a few actors portraying characters from Tiede's life. At this point in time, I have to urge you to not read any further if you haven't seen the film, as knowing virtually anything about it will dampen your enjoyment of the film. And likewise, if you've seen the horrendous theatrical trailer for the film, it will make you think it's some wacky Harold & Maude clone with Jack Black up to his usual antics. In other words, spoilers for the next two paragraphs…
Bernie strikes up a friendship with a local widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) that eventually ends up consuming all of his time, as Marjorie is a bit of a control freak. As Bernie tries to hold things together, he eventually begins to show cracks in his facade, and in a moment of weakness, ends up shooting Marjorie in the back four times. He spends the next several months trying to carry on like normal, since no one in town really much liked or cared about Marjorie anyway, and no one seems to miss her. However, her body is eventually found, preserved in a freezer, and Bernie is put on trial for her murder.
The prosecutor in the case is Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, also fantastic), and because of the town's adoration for Bernie, he seeks to have the case moved to another county, the first in a series of moves that seem to doom Bernie's defense. In fact, if I have any major grievance with the film, it's that it is firmly on Bernie's side. Buck is portrayed as an egotist and a madman, and thankfully McConaughey is able to infuse him with some pathos, but the film itself definitely sets him up as the villain when it didn't really need to. The nosy accountant was a good enough villain without having to demonize Buck. But that's neither here nor there.
The film is pretty riveting stuff, particularly when you don't know the outcome. It reminded me a bit of the documentary Brother's Keeper in that it presented this world where an entire town rallies around one man, as if to hold them up as a beacon of their way of life they're trying to protect. It would make a great double feature if anyone's up to it.
As I said earlier, Black is fantastic. I've always enjoyed him as a performer, but never thought much of him as an actor. He's at home in films like School of Rock & High Fidelity, but anytime he's taken outside of that zone and expected to give a performance, the results can be disastrous. Peter Jackson's King Kong would be the number one example I could think of where he was so woefully miscast, he actually made a bad movie even worse. His performance here, however, is measured and nuanced. His gait is different, his speaking voice and even his singing voice are transformed, and he wholly embodies this character, never letting you think of Jack Black the buffoon (except maybe The Music Man scene).
McConaughey is every bit his equal, though his role is much smaller. From his doofus haircut to his wheel of misfortune, he's a pitiable dude, and one that McConaughey doesn't seem equipped to play as well as he does. It's often distracting to see attractive actors playing losers, but he does a damn good job here and plays it for all it's worth.
Overall, it's a very satisfying movie and one that I wholeheartedly recommend to film fans everywhere. Don't let any biases you may have towards the film's star steer you away, you'd be doing yourself a disservice. Perhaps this is the start of a new phase for Richard Linklater, and all I can say is that if it is, I'm excited to see what he has in store for us down the road. This is as promising a start as he's had in a long time.