Bernie (2011)

Richard Linklater has an incredible talent for making modest and funny movies.  Bernie is a simple film, but it’s a witty black comedy with a profound thematic core.  Featuring a masterful performance from the normally boisterous Jack Black, Linklater has given us another American classic.

Bernie presents itself as a mocumentary mixed with elements of comedy and mystery.  It stands apart as truly unique in Linklater’s canon.  The film tells the true story of convicted murderer Bernie Tiede, who divided the town of Carthage, Texas over ten years ago.  Through the progression of the movie, the action weaves through three distinct but equally engaging and heartfelt narrative threads.  There is the love story, the endearing southern slice-of-life story, and of course the true-crime thriller story.  Each facet of the film’s narrative is wonderfully written.  The sense of community that comes through the screenplay is remarkable.  It really does feel like the voice of Carthage is captured in its entirety, which is an impressive feat of writing.

Much of the film consists of interviews with citizens of Carthage.  There are dozens of folks that participate in these interviews, but as the films progresses their individual characters start to develop.  By the end, each denizen of Carthage feels like a real person that you know.  You get a sense familiarity with everyone, which is a testament to the writing.  Matthew McConaughey, who plays the fictionalized version of District Attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson, gives the best performance of his career.  All three leads have eccentricities that come through in their singular character roles, which came together as one of the best character ensembles I’ve seen in a long time.

Bernie and Marjorie, played by the wonderfully horrific Shirley Maclaine, enjoying a spa treatment during a montage in the film.

But the true heart of the film comes from Jack Black’s magnificent portrayal of Bernie Tiede.  My main problem with Jack Black as an actor is that all of his roles come across as self-aware; it always feels like Jack Black playing a character.  There is none of that here.  His performance makes us see what the people of Carthage saw in Bernie Tiede: a wonderfully caring and compassionate soul with not an ounce of greed in his chubby body.  Jack Black is the anti-hero.  We love Bernie, despite the fact that he shot an old woman in the back four times.  Black is the perfect embodiment of his character, and here he gives us one of the best performances of the decade thus far.

Bernie is a sensitive and sympathetic comedy that carefully walks the line between seriousness and mockery.  Linklater’s career spans more than 25 years, with a number of important and revered films to his credit.  But this may be his very best yet.  Don’t let this diamond in the rough slip by.  This is one that everybody should see.


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