I’m “biast” (pro): love Richard Linklater’s flicks
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Sometimes fiction is more true than truth. And then there are those stories that can only work because they are true, because whatever unsettling human realities they have to share would be difficult to take in a fictional story: you simply couldn’t set up an invented tale that takes the same twists and turns and be plausible at the same time. But when it all really happened, who are we to argue with reality? We can only shake our heads at it, and how human beings actual behave in their natural environments.
This is true. In rural east Texas in the 1990s, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede was the most beloved man in the town of Carthage. All the “dear little old ladies” had crushes on him, we learn. “Bernie was a very loving man, a charismatic person.” We hear these things via documentary-style talking-head interviews that open the film, which is a disconcerting thing to behold, because they’re intercut with bits of Famous Hollywood Funnyman Jack Black performing as sweet, kind, gentle Bernie… and because it’s Jack Black (The Big Year, Kung Fu Panda 2) we’re watching, we keep expecting him to be “funny.” Which never ever happens, except in a charming, down-to-earth way that’s all about finding the core humanity in a character who appears to be heading into the territory of risible caricature yet never gets there.
It’s so lovely to see Jack Black being this kind of actor. I hope he does it more often.
Those talking-head townspeople? Director Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles, A Scanner Darkly) smartly cast no famous faces, and presents them with such unaccented naturalism and lets them talk in ways that sound completely off the cuff. You’d be forgiven for wondering if they aren’t all playing themselves. And, in fact, that is the case with some of them. But I couldn’t possibly tell you which are actors and which are not, and which are speaking scripted lines and which are not.
I’m not sure a movie has ever been so much clever fun keeping me on my critical toes like Bernie was that first time around. It’s such a simple little movie, really — as well as sad and strange, and ironic and discomfiting — yet it’s so unlike the quirky-indie-comedy genre it’s best slotted into, if somewhat uncomfortably.
There are two other famous faces here: Shirley MacLaine (Valentine’s Day, In Her Shoes) shifts from comical to almost terrifying as Marjorie Nugent, who’s very wealthy and very widowed and very bitchy — or perhaps mentally ill — whom Bernie befriends because he’s just that nice a guy. And Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike, The Lincoln Lawyer) is Danny Buck, the slick and slippery local district attorney, who likes to show off for the media and engage in dramatic law enforcement… yet who is more sincere than he appears at first. (McConaughey is also refreshingly down-to-earth and human here, unlike his typical modus operandi.) The DA is a character because–
Well, I don’t want to spoil why Bernie is a story, and what prompted Linklater’s coscreenwriter Skip Hollandsworth to have published the original 1990s Texas Monthly essay about Bernie Tiede in the first place. The expected thing in a run-of-the-mill quirky indie comedy would be for Bernie to be slowly revealed as a manipulative conman taking advantage of all those dear little old ladies. Certainly hints are slipped in that that could be the case, such as his “real knack for drama” that finds outlet in the local community theater, and how outrageously ridiculous his niceness is, which extends to making curtains and doing tax returns. Or perhaps DA Buck is out to get Bernie for some unfair reason…?
Where Bernie goes — and, recall, this is all true stuff — becomes a disquieting upside-down portrait of crime and punishment, one that calls into question our concept of “a jury of one’s peers” being those most fit to judge us. It becomes a test of our notions of morality: not the things we find moral or immoral but the processes through which we come to those choices, much of which involves a collective cultural agreement on what is right and what isn’t. How far should kindness stretch, and how much does the kindness of others impact us? Bernie leaves us in a most unnerving place, where we’re not even sure we know what the correct answers are.