Come for the story, stay for Jack Black.
Bernie is an odd experience. Director Richard Linklater’s latest is a true story, starring Jack Black as Bernie Tiede – a 39 year old mortician loved by the town of Carthage, Texas – who murdered Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), and old woman disliked generally by the town. The film – co-written by Linklater with Skip Hollandsworth, who wrote the magazine article the film is based on – chronicles the character of Bernie from his arrival at Carthage to his court appearance.
Bernie is played as a black comedy, but in all honesty, it is not a hugely funny film; there are a few light laughs throughout however. Instead the success of this film comes through its direction, story and acting. The film is something of a mockumentary, with talking head footage provided by actors and people from Carthage, who knew Bernie and Nugent at the time of the murder. The direction and placing of each of the interviews is perfect and adds a clever layer to the film that lets you really delve more into the characters of Bernie, Nugent and Matthew McConaughey’s lawyer Danny “Buck” Davidson. Bernie is just another example of the genius of Linklater’s directing prowess.
Through the mockumentary approach the narrative also becomes more interesting, and we get to see fantastically developed characters through backstory and title screens. Throughout the film there appears a title screen that gives the film a direction for its characters and action, the approach works very well and ultimately makes the film more interesting.
However, the fact that the film is based on a true story makes it slightly disturbing that what we see on-screen (for the most part) actually happened. Therefore creating a black comedy on the subject matter of true murder comes off as a little distasteful. Despite this, the film is an enjoyable watch and it only really kicks in afterwards that what you have just seen happened. But how do you make a film based on such a dark subject enjoyable?
The answer to the question above is Jack Black. Jack Black’s performance as the titular Bernie is his best yet; his subtle, effeminate performance Is brilliant and holds the film together wonderfully. Of course, based on the name, the film was always going to take the side of Bernie, focussing on his story throughout, suggesting the majority of the town didn’t think he did it. Jack Black’s performance really deserved more appreciation from the proper authorities – an Oscar nod would have been good. The way he holds himself consistently and never strays from character in the slightest really is impressive and he creates a superbly three-dimensional character through his best performance to date.
Just talking about Jack Black’s performance however would simply be wrong. Shirley MacLaine plays Nugent incredibly, really making the character move from a grumpy old woman to quite the character, playing very well off of Black’s Bernie – there is a real chemistry between the two actors, really bringing the narrative of their character’s relationship to life. Matthew McConaughey’s “Buck” is superbly written and crafted, McConaughey giving a terrific performance – especially when delivering some of the film’s funnier lines.
Bernie is a mildly amusing, mildly disturbing film bolstered by a career defining performance from Jack Black, Linklater’s impeccable directing and some more great performances from MacLaine and McConaughey. However, it comes off a little odd at times and just is not as funny as it wants to be. Oh, and that version of Amazing Grace – wow.
Linklater’s (and Jack Black’s) best film since School of Rock, but it does come off as a little strange and slightly disturbing.