Richard Linklater is a director of many styles. With films ranging from hangout comedies like Dazed and Confused all the way to metaphysical odysseys like Waking Life, it’s hard to pin him down as a director. To make matters more difficult, he’s decided to make this puzzling little addition to his filmography.
Bernie’s a strange little movie. It’s the story of Bernie, the town’s beloved mortician, and his strange relationship with the town’s most despised woman, Marjorie Nugent. After consoling Marjorie in the wake of her husband’s death, Bernie becomes something like Marjorie’s personal servant or consort. Bernie, perhaps the nicest guy you’ll ever see on the silver screen, is a bit too nice for his own good. He’s so amiable that he finds himself incapable of telling Marjorie to just leave him alone as she begins to take advantage of his generosity. As a result, Bernie begins to feel trapped and helpless. All of his bottled up discontent finally pushes Bernie over the edge and he committing an act so far out of his character the townspeople have trouble believing it, the murder of Marjorie Nugent.
Now I know what you’re all thinking. What’s so weird about that? I mean, murder stories come a dime a dozen. Well, you see the strange part isn’t the murder as much as the town’s reaction or lack thereof. Everyone in Carthage just doesn’t care. To them it’s as simple as Marjorie’s a bitch and Bernie’s too nice to go to jail. They’d rather just ignore the whole ordeal than actually uphold the law. Now if that doesn’t sound bizarre to you than maybe it will when you realize this is all based on a true story. I have to admit I find that quite chilling and wonderfully unusual, and in a year with such a dearth of original ideas this unique perspective is appreciated.
Fortunately, that uniqueness is not just isolated to the film’s premise. Linklater does something truly wonderful with this film. He makes the small town of Carthage a character in the film, and then gives it a voice through the many talking head scenes interspersed throughout the movie. He puts a camera in front of the townspeople and allows them to comment on the events of the film. It gives the film this fascinating pseudo-documentary aesthetic, and allows the audience to reach a perfect understanding of the town and its residents.
This all could have fallen apart if there wasn’t a central performance tying everything together, and Jack Black delivers that performance perfectly. Bernie gives us a very different Jack Black than we’re used to. He’s no longer the juvenile man-child obsessed with rock and roll that we’ve come to expect. This movie shows us Jack Black as the man we’ve always admired and looked up to. He’s kind, sympathetic, and charismatic, and we can easily believe that no one would ever want this man to go to jail even if he did something as appalling as murder. Without an excellent actor as Bernie, this film would have had half the resonance, and I’m glad to say Jack Black shows us that he can be that actor.
When I first walked into Bernie I thought it would be a simple comedy. I expected it’d be something maybe akin to School of Rock, something fluffy and fun with nice comedy and, of course, Jack Black Jack Blackin’ it up. Instead, I got a fascinating exploration of small town life complete with perhaps one of the best performances of the year. It’s a true pleasure to walk into a movie you expect nothing out of, and walk out excited to tell people about it. I guess I’ve just destroyed your opportunity to have that with this film, but at least you can still enjoy one of the best movies of the year so far.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5