Bernie (2011)

by - May 18th, 2012 - Movie Reviews


Peculiar Bernie a Mystery of the Absurd

In the truth is stranger than fiction files, few stories are more surreal and downright oddball than the one presented in Richard Linklater’s new film Bernie. It is the tale of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a small town Texas assistant funeral director beloved by the citizenry and the only friend wealthy matriarch Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) apparently has in the entire community. After his handling of her husband’s funeral the two hit it off, spending more time together doing various little things no one but them seem to have any sort of interest in doing.

PHOTO: Millennium Entertainment

But there is a reason Marjorie is so universally hated, and after a while her prickly personality even gets the best of Bernie. He kills the old woman, shooting her four times in the back and burying her under a pile of frozen food in the gigantic freezer she kept in the back of her massive garage.

But that’s not even the weird part. It seems that Bernie would go the next nine or so months making everyone in town believe that Marjorie was still alive. He convinced them that she had begun to come around as a human being, giving up her selfish tendencies and becoming something of a patron to the disposed and downtrodden. He made massive donations in her name to various community organizations, including the forking over of a $100,000 to help build a new Sunday School for the local Methodist church.

Linklater has always been a filmmaker willing to buck convention, and returning to his Texas homeland has inspired the filmmaker, and while no one will confuse this bewildering epic of murder, friendship and mayhem with Dazed and Confused, that doesn’t make the resulting docudrama any less peculiar or enthralling. Bringing in many of the locals who knew this story best to either play themselves or to appear as an extra, the movie has a strange quality that is decidedly unique.

This conceit mostly works. Co-writing with journalist Skip Hollandsworth, the Texas Monthly reporter who originally broke the story, Linklater’s film has a bouncy eclectic quality that kept me on my toes. Even knowing the central machinations of the story going in this one was still full of so many continual surprises I almost couldn’t believe what was going on. Bernie’s story, as well as that of the town’s folk, refuses to follow a typical path, making what happens throughout just as mysterious as the murder local District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) is so driven to solve.

The eccentricity of the piece can be a bit much, and there are moments, as good as Black and MacLaine are, where I didn’t particularly buy that Bernie and Marjorie’s friendship was as potent as it was depicted as being. There is also a weird, almost disheveled raggedness to the pacing that’s a little disconcerting, Linklater traveling between fact and fiction, drama and documentary, rather uneasily, this wariness frequently noticeable.

PHOTO: Millennium Entertainment

But the acting by the three leads is wonderful, Black digging into the character to such a degree I kind of think this might just be the best performance he has ever given. I was also taken with McConaughey, and as much as I’ve grown tired of him due to his seemingly never-ending onslaught of romantic comedy drivel thanks to Linklater’s casting genius I’m reminded how great the guy can be when given a role he can fully sink his teeth into.

Bernie is simply unlike anything else out there making its way through the multiplexes right now. It is unique and tells a story many have never heard about with intelligence, style and panache. Linklater proves yet again he’s one of the great storytellers working today, and while this one doesn’t rise to the same rarified heights of say Before Sunset or Slacker that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile.

Film Rating: 3 (out of 4)

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