13 May 2013

BERNIE- Review

It's tough to think of another true story movie that's as cheerfully bleak as Richard Linklater's latest, Bernie. In a similar fashion to Bart Layton's The Imposter, Linklater tells part of the story in documentary fashion, with the difference that the actors playing the real people here are more recognisable than in Layton's film. The result is a peculiar black comedy about Bernie Tiede, a man who was a pillar of the community in Carthage, Texas.

Aside from Bernie's general popularity, he becomes the apple of every old widow's eye in his capacity as an assistant funeral director, sincerely caring for the old dears, even after organising their late husbands' funerals. Everyone is puzzled when he develops a particularly close friendship with Marjorie Nugent, a mean old cow who lives on her own and scorns everyone else. Only a dogged district attorney, Danny Buck, seems to doubt Bernie's good character, after events take a surprising and sinister turn.

As usual, the way to avoid spoilers for this one would be to avoid Googling the real Bernie Tiede, but Linklater has created something that's too interesting to be truly spoiled. Even if you know all the facts about what transpired between Bernie and Mrs. Nugent, the film is designed to confuse your sympathies, in a way that some will see as one-sided. For instance, the people of Carthage, seen in talking-head shots throughout the film, are variously played by themselves, or by actors- most of them are saying quite funny stuff, but it's made funnier in retrospect, knowing that some of them actually believe what they're saying.

The long and short of it is that Bernie is a pretty sound bloke, and it's tough to think of when Jack Black has ever been better than he is in the title role. Re-teaming with Linklater for the first time since School Of Rock, he gives a performance that's worlds away from his usual shtick. He plays it effeminately, based on the real Bernie's personality, but in such a way that his kindness could easily be mistaken for manipulation by more skeptical folks than the people of Carthage- how can anybody be so bloody nice?

That's the question that silently reverberates from an equally strong turn by Matthew McConaughey, as DA Danny Buck. Of the roles that are considered as part of his current career McCon-aissance, this was actually the first to be filmed. Even though it's arrived on UK screens after his bravura turns in Killer Joe and Magic Mike, it's just as gratifying to see him using his powers for good, rather than for leaning. The other notable performance in the film comes from Shirley Maclaine, as Mrs. Nugent, who is equally potent as a force for nastiness as Bernie is for sweetness and light. With Maclaine's ability to draw sympathy even to the most irredeemable of characters, the question of which force will win through becomes a big part of the film.

If you don't know how things are going to unfold, you might think that this is going to be the source of the drama all the way through, but when matters escalate in a big, bad way in the second half, the star performances are just as believable as those of the assorted supporting actors and real people. In spite of how recognisable the three leads may be, you find yourself constantly remembering that you're watching a mockumentary. To an even more disorienting effect, you may even need reminding of where your sympathies should probably lie, resulting in one of the most apt and relevant "And then this happened..." end tags I've seen in a movie of this kind.

Bernie takes an unusual, potentially even upsetting approach to a true story, by treating it with a light and comical touch. The cost of not sitting on the fence is that nobody is entirely right or wrong, but that feels somehow more representative of real life than many of these films tend to be. Jack Black is so likeable that Matthew McConaughey is almost cast in the role of the heel, rather than Shirley Maclaine, but Linklater never blows anything out of proportion. The result is a fresh, funny small-town whodunnit story that's more about identifying with the culprit than simply identifying them.

Bernie is still showing in selected cinemas nationwide.  
If you've seen Bernie, why not share your comments below? The next McCon-aissance film on my list is Mud- look for my review soon...

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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