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With: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey, Rick Dial, Sonny Carl Davis
Written by: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth
Directed by: Richard Linklater
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violent images and brief strong language
Running Time: 104
Date: 06/16/2011

Bernie (2012)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A first reaction to Richard Linklater's Bernie would probably be: "just what is this thing?" It seems like a "mockmentary," with all the interviews of people commenting upon the action, but then the action itself is nothing that could be -- or would be -- captured by a documentary crew. But after careful consideration, it actually jells into a peculiar, wonderful, and quite brilliant mingling of fact and fiction. Or, in short, it's a celebration of the plastic nature of storytelling.

Featured at the 2012 San Francisco International Film Festival, Bernie is based on a true story, but unlike many "based on a true story" movies, it makes no claims of actually being a true story. "Bernie" Tiede (Jack Black) is a mortician in Carthage, Texas. He is introduced in a brilliant opening sequence, demonstrating for a group of students his craft. His work is meticulous but theatrical, and it highlights a large difference between what is shown and what is actually true.

From there, the movie teaches us a bit more about him. He's a singer with a beautiful, perfectly modulated voice. He sings in the church choir, and even performs in some local musicals. In his personal time, he likes to help soothe the grief of the older ladies who have lost their husbands, though there's some speculation as to whether or not Bernie is homosexual. In one case, he befriends a wealthy widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who is generally disdained in the small town. They spend a great deal of time together, going on lavish vacations, until Bernie more or less becomes her henpecked personal assistant. That's when the murder happens.

Between these scenes, Carthage locals offer their opinions on the story, which is basically gossip. The gossipers agree and disagree with one another, and fill in the story's holes with conjecture. It turns out that most of these folks are actually actors, though some of them knew the real people, and most of them are from the area and were at least familiar with Bernie's story. Furthermore, though their dialogue was all scripted, it was largely borrowed from interviews. Again, we have a complex mix of truth and storytelling.

Perhaps the movie's masterstroke comes with its introduction of district attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey), who makes it his mission to bring down Bernie. Buck is shown among the gossipers, and then slowly enters into the narrative; he represents the fusion between the gossip and the events that we are shown. Likewise, McConaughey is well disguised and seems for all the world like one of the locals. Remember that, though McConaughey has gone onto a ridiculous and laughable career as a shirtless Hollywood leading man, Linklater gave him his first potent character role in Dazed and Confused. It looks as if McConaughey ought to stay in character roles from now on.

Not to mention Jack Black, who also had his best lead performance to date in a Linklater film, School of Rock. He surpasses that with Bernie, putting every tool in his arsenal to perfect use. And of course, it goes without saying that MacLaine can play a mean, cranky old woman with the very best of them; here, however, she adds extra depth with her amazed, moved expression when she watches her Bernie singing on stage.

Linklater's final comment on the elusiveness of perception comes in Bernie's trial, wherein a jury of local southerners looks at Bernie as if he were an alien, with absolutely no idea how to define him. I suppose he is an alien in some way. Linklater deliberately avoids looking at Bernie's inner life. We rarely see him when he's alone, and even then -- such as driving his car -- he's performing. He serves only to interact with -- and cause reactions from -- the other characters; and, ironically, the other characters are only there to tell Bernie's story. And yet, due to Black's canny performance, he's somehow a touching soul.

Bernie is a simple movie, clearly funny and entertaining, but at the same time astoundingly complex and intriguing. It's rather unlike anything Linklater has done before, but an altogether welcome new layer to his canon.

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