Besides an all-time best performance from Jack Black, “Bernie” also boasts many of the hallmarks of director Richard Linklater’s greatest works.
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I have long believed that the key to Richard Linklater’s success lies in his ability to get out of the way of a film. It often seems that he knows exactly who and what to put in front of the camera, at which point he can step back and let the scenes unfold as they will – as if he is less a director than simply a facilitator. It’s no surprise that his biggest tells are screenplay-related: a Texas setting, a philosophy reference, or the events of a single day all point to the fact that you’re watching Linklater at work long before anything you’ll see on the screen.
All of this holds true for “Bernie,” the 2012 drama recounting the true story of a murder in the town of Carthage, Texas. Jack Black plays Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director who is equal parts upbeat and offbeat. He’s incredibly well liked and respected around the neighborhood, so everyone is taken aback when he strikes up a close friendship with the town pariah, Marjorie Nugent. Marjorie, played by Shirley MacLaine, is reclusive and hateful, and only Bernie seems to be able to see past her crotchety exterior. Unfortunately, not even Bernie’s charms can temper her cruelty forever; broken down by prolonged abuse, he shoots her and hides her in a deep-freeze in her garage. Linklater supplements these events, originally reported on by Skip Hollandsworth for Texas Monthly in 1998, with testimonials from actual Carthage residents.
Jack Black as Bernie is true virtuoso casting. To believe Bernie’s story – that this sudden and unexpected outburst of violent passion could be so out of character – we need to sense his suppression of emotions without feeling like he’s concealing something. In that sense, Black brings not only his performance to the role, but also a well-established history of larger-than-life caricatures. There is no hint of his usual boisterousness in Bernie, but the expectations inherent to seeing Black onscreen create a palpable dissonance. Keeping pace with Black, MacLaine is also impressive in her role. Most notable is the distinct physicality they both bring to their characters – Marjorie looks as though her anger has started to cannibalize her, snarling her limbs into rigid positions that are always in shrewd comedic contrast to Bernie’s careful, straight-armed waddle.
Though the story reads like a drama and is presented like a documentary, Linklater is able to draw out a lot of comedy through the simplest details. Directing a musical, Bernie instructs the cast to move with the beat of the song and the floor squeaks loudly each time they all bop in rhythm. A warning to a casket-buying customer that his legs may have to be broken in order to fit his body inside is delivered in a hilarious deadpan so genuine that the morbidity of the statement barely registers. When Marjorie’s body is discovered, it takes four men to carry the freezer out of the garage, amusingly reminiscent of pallbearers (we’re reassured later that the food was, of course, removed from her icy resting place). Even the townspeople are good for a laugh, thanks to their continued incredulity as they recount the story almost 15 years on. They so highly regarded Bernie and despised Marjorie that they have trouble fathoming why he shot her only four times; why not five?
The film is so full of deceptively modest ideas that one could easily wonder how much coaching the interview subjects were given on what to say. “We’re all capable of that,” one subject says of Bernie being overcome by the negative energy that was constantly impressed upon him. It begs the question of how to define a person: by their good actions, their bad, or some combination of both? Can a person be selfless and kind to such a degree that murder becomes a forgivable offense? These are just some of the many subtexts running through the film, also including religion, sexuality, and the interesting dichotomy present between the two in a system of Southern beliefs. That Linklater can evoke all of this without showing his hand or hammering his points home is part of the brilliance of his best work. To watch a Linklater film is to feel like he’s watching it for the first time with you, and in the case of “Bernie”, that film is pretty great.
Zack is a software developer from Halifax, Nova Scotia moonlighting as a cinephile - until the weekend, when those roles reverse. He can often be found thoughtfully stroking his beard or thoughtfully stroking his cat. Despite remaining in the sitting position almost exclusively, he occasionally makes time to be bent into other shapes during jiu jitsu practice. You can aggresively shout your opinions and objections at him via Twitter or in person (anywhere beer is served).
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