Dir: Richard Linklater, 2013
In the small-town of Carthage, Texas, the most beloved member of the closely-knit community is local funeral director Bernie Tiede. After her husband’s funeral, Bernie befriends millionaire Marjorie Nugent who is infamous among the townsfolk to say the least. This unlikely relationship blooms for several years but when Bernie finally snaps and kills Marjorie, he must keep up the charade that the mean-spirited widow is alive and well.
It’s rare that Jack Black delivers a performance that doesn’t result in either scatting or bellowing until his face turns red. Black is at his best when dialled down (see High Fidelity, King Kong) and Bernie is his most subtle portrayal yet. In a clever move, the cast of talking heads recruited to reinforce the townspeople’s support of Bernie are a mixture of actors and real-life citizens of Carthage, giving weight to the unnerving sense of authenticity that Linklater & Skip Hollandsworth’s screenplay was predisposed on. The unfortunate shortcoming of this aspect is we have too much time spent talking about Bernie and not enough insight into the character himself. When Jack Black gives a rare performance of this calibre, why is it being so shockingly underused?
As much of a black comedy as Bernie claims to be, no-one seems to find the story as funny as the director himself. Linklater treats the material very light-heartedly but there is no comedic weight to the events, be it dark or otherwise. This fascinating true story captivates via its faux-documentary style and a cast who assimilate their characters in an almost congenital manner but if laughter was Linklater’s agenda, it appears the script was lacking the confidence to achieve such a goal. Linklater claims the script’s dreariness caused problems until he promised a humorous result. One would imagine that a filmmaker as distinguished as Linklater would know that if something’s not on the page, there’s little reason it should be present in the final product.
This remarkable true story is wholly encapsulated by Linklater’s sharp but simple vision of Hollandsworth’s 1998 magazine article. While Linklater touches on themes of law and morality, the charming yet fraudulent title character is treated so politely that it slightly undervalues the tale being told. The limited cast is rounded out by a devilishly aggravating Shirley MacLaine (who reminds you of that impossible-to-please grandparent) and Matthew McConaughey’s district attorney, who is flabbergasted by the town’s refusal to share his law-abiding principles. However, Bernie’s relative success hinges on Black’s central performance, which is superb in its unexpected modesty.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆