Richard Linklater is an interesting man. His films are peculiar and understated objects. He is behind SLACKER, DAZED AND CONFUSED, WAKING LIFE and A SCANNER DARKLY, amongst other. BERNIE is another movie that fits Linklater's legacy quite well. There always was a strange aura around this movie, starting with the curious idea of spoiling the entire plot in the film blurb. But if you've followed Linklater's career for as long as I did (I first watched DAZED AND CONFUSED at eight or nine years old), you've learned to trust him. So to second guess him never really occurred to me. Also, it's another title I crossed off Jedidiah Ayres' excellent 2012 movie bucket list.
So yeah, the plot is all laid out. If you go to IMDB, you get the jist crammed in three lines. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is about the nicest man on Earth. He's also the town's mortician, which makes him a little creepy. Bernie remains single for the longest time, sparking the idea amongst Carthage's townsfolk that he's gay. But he surprises everyone by starting to date the rich, misanthrope window, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Things change for the nicest man on Earth as he becomes the slave of this little old lady. When she disappears one day, the people of Carthage start wondering if Bernie's radiant personality was part of qa grim con.
Josie and I walked into BERNIE thinking it was another byproduct of Richard Linklater's fertile imagination. Jack Black plays something that goes leagues beyond the lovely, energetic fat guy we're used to see him play. His performance is a strange yet healthy balance of slapstick and subtle undertow of pain that you're never explained, which makes it great. Linklater and Black work together at making Bernie Tiede a mystery and the final product really is convincing. Matthew McConaughey maybe was a little of a miscast here, not because he's actually bad, but because he's been playing lawmen/Texas lawmen a lot lately and this part doesn't live up to either KILLER JOE or THE LINCOLN LAWYER. Aesthetically speaking, another actor would have served the movie better. It's just a bad match.
Did I mention BERNIE is based on a true story? I say "based" because Richard Linklater's film takes a lot of liberties with what happened. If the film has this weird a posteriori, documentary feeling to it, it's because it IS part documentary (when I say Linklater is weird, it's a good example). The townspeople asked questions (or most of them anyway) are real people from Carthage. Some can't stand to be on camera without laughing, so it gives the movie a truthful lining that enhances its uncanny nature.
Bernie Tiede murdered his life companion, seemingly out of psychological exhaustion after two years of abuse. BERNIE examines what can lead to murder without ever entering too deep into its characters psychology. Linklater makes you witness the inevitable like you were watching a documentary and yet keeps his characters' deepest motivations under wrap. It's a movie with a bizarre sense of integrity, but that has a great understanding of how to create interesting drama. BERNIE is alike to old Columbo episodes, except this time, the spectator is the detective and forming your judgment on Bernie Tiede is integral part of the viewing experience. "Strange, yet enjoyable" should be trademarked by Richard Linklater.