I won’t hesitate in saying that Bernie is one of the best movies released this year. It sports a dangerously good performance from the unexpected Jack Black, playing a genial assistant funeral director who befriends & eventually murders a widow played by Shirley MacLaine. It’s compulsively watchable. Linklater retains an old-school independent touch but he has become a very skilled professional, crafting a number of sequences that are cinematically impressive. The movie doesn’t commit to some ideas that might seem to require it (Is Bernie a homosexual? Where should our sympathies go?). The writing is so well done that the townspeople start to seem convincing when they argue for Bernie’s innocence! Ultimately, Linklater gives us a very complex look at the justice system, guilt, and East Texas.
The film moves quickly and seems effortless because of a massive series of faux-documentary interviews and vernacular intertitiles. It had to be frightening, knowing that so much of a picture is resting on the shoulders of silly townspeople. They could have easily made Bernie collapse, but they are its biggest triumph. It is clear that Linklater shares a powerful bond with East Texas. I haven’t seen this kind of affinity and compassion for a geographical region in a long time. In fact, the representation of Carthage, TX in Bernie only finds cultural companionship with Pawnee, IN from Parks & Recreation. The film doesn’t rush to convince you about these townspeople. It doesn’t suggest that we should trust them or ignore them. Instead, they paint the picture for us. And in the end, when we finally take a step back, we realize just how incredibly bizarre but understandable their responses were. Bernie’s trial was a spectacle in the town. Everyone came out to support him. They tell us that the trial needed to be moved to another county so as to avoid sympathy in the jury. Among many things, these townspeople show us how strange our relationships can be. It doesn’t seem ridiculous for some of these older ladies, to whom Bernie gave the royal (at least) treatment, to totally ignore or repress the fact that Bernie murdered someone. And Linklater does a great job of letting them be a little bit convincing. It’s an old trick — the ‘correct’ characters are insufferable while the ‘wrong’ characters are as nice as can be. Still, it’s the best dramatization of that trope resting in my recent memory.
Linklater’s spirit for subtle cinematic flair peeks out sometimes. When Marjorie closes her gate to trap Bernie, the camera reacts with a dramatic gesture. It pushes in on Bernie in the car and then cuts to a POV shot that shows him trapped in this oppressively beautiful environment — a cross hangs from his rear-view mirror, out of focus. And the murder scene is done with such astonishing, careful craft that it took a while for me to understand what Linklater was trying to do. The camera pushes in on Bernie and, again, cuts to his POV. But we see him looking at her in a flashback, in one of her most annoying moments. Then, we are shown, unquestionably, Bernie shooting her four times in the back. However, Linklater employs full cinematic force to coach us into a corner where he plants another seed of sympathy for the hero. Later, Bernie says that he “felt as though it wasn’t him” who was shooting Marjorie. The dissociation that a person like Bernie must have felt in a moment of such uncharacteristic brutality is understandable. Linklater, again, does a marvelous job of using a touch of cinematic panache to visually communicate how we should feel about the characters.
I am hoping that Bernie has its day. It deserves it. Not least because of a trio of dynamite performances. Jack Black is shockingly good at playing this character. His physical roundness, his stocky but light legs, and his easy arms all relay the kind of rural super-geniality that most of us understand to some degree. His moments of anxiety and sadness are done with exquisite pathos. Linklater understood that Black’s comedic charm was the necessary ingredient in creating audience sympathy for Bernie. It’s silly to speculate on Oscar considerations at this point, but I’ll be silly and hope for Jack Black to get a deserved nod. Two supporters, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, lend balance to a couple of potentially volatile character roles. MacLaine is most dominating and maddening in silence and McConaughey is just slimy enough.
Bernie is must-see material. A very intimate and compassionate character study that embraces setting as a supporting player. A very good movie.