Review: “Bernie”

Jack Black stars in Richard Linklater's "Bernie."In today’s filmgoing climate, audiences are usually forced to choose between challenging works and brain-dead ones, because few productions exist in between the two extremes. This dichotomy is a shame, for it all too frequently results in Joe Schmoe knowingly watching mediocre Hollywood efforts, simply because the searing independent alternatives have a tendency to seem overly tasking at the end of a hard work-week.

Thus, when a movie like Richard Linklater’s “Bernie” comes along and seeks to occupy that special middle-ground–its aspirations aren’t groundbreaking, but it makes sure to have an interesting story and authentic characters–it should be savored. This is a film that the viewer can simply sit back, relax, and enjoy, without feeling like they are sacrificing their intelligence in the process.

Jack Black stars in the performance of his career as Bernie Tiede, a real-life “funeral director”–he considers the term “mortician” to be derogatory–who one day lost his marbles and murdered an elderly widow (Shirley MacLaine), causing quite a stir in the small-town of Carthage, Texas. The news was difficult for most residents to swallow, for Bernie was beloved by every widow in town, so charming that he was virtually the only person that grumpy old Majorie allowed into her life.

There’s not much to the story beyond that, but writer/director Linklater, Black, and the rest of the cast get all the nuances so perfect that “Bernie” is consistently involving. The most striking element is the way that Linklater structures the film, interspersing documentary-like interviews with the actors and several actual Carthage townspeople with the traditional narrative. This richly establishes the setting, and it allows the viewer to believe that “Bernie” accurately portrays the real story, which would otherwise be in question given the movie’s dark comedy-like tone.

Furthermore, the interview segments allow Linklater to portray Bernie as a fascinating social enigma, rather than to actually try to get inside the man’s head and understand what drove him to commit murder — an original, non-speculative approach to this type material. As Bernie’s neighbors reminisce about how much he meant to the community and realize how little they actually knew about him–there is a passage in which they all respond differently when asked whether Bernie was gay, for instance–the movie functions as a clever deconstruction of small-town celebrity.

But for as unique as the mock-documentary bits are, this is Black’s movie. Playing Bernie with an effeminate swagger and a palpable love for a profession that most people find creepy, the popular actor achieves the mean feat of disappearing into his role. Consistent with Linklater’s approach to the material, Black never invites the audience inside Bernie’s head, but he undoubtedly entered it himself, resulting in a performance that is mystifying and unpredictable. Also terrific in an against-type role is Matthew McConaughey, who plays the prosecutor trying Bernie.

Other than a flavor for what it’s like to live in small-town East Texas, viewers won’t take much away from “Bernie,” but the movie is a pleasurable ride with plenty of well-done elements to keep one occupied while it’s on the screen. If that’s not enough for you, might I recommend Netflixing the Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s 7-1/2 hour opus “Sátántangó” instead?