Monday, September 9, 2013

3 short paragraphs: Bernie

2011, d. Richard Linklater

Set in small-town Carthage Texas, Bernie is the story of Bernie Tiede, an undertaker at the town's mortuary.  He is a kind and giving man, compassionate and empathetic, and exceptionally well-regarded around town.  He seems a man not completely devoid of ego, but certainly unaware of it.  He's selfless to a fault, which is how he winds up being the devoted companion to Marjorie Nugent, the widow of the town's most prominent businessman, and a complete and utter bitch of a woman.  She is universally reviled around town, disliked by her own children, and if she cares at all about how she's perceived she never lets on.  Only Bernie is able to crack through the facade, or so he thinks, until he learns that it's not a facade at all, she's really that mean, bitter, angry and selfish a person.

It would be lazy to say that Jack Black plays against type, because Black has shown this kind of range before.  He's a skilled and thoughtful performer, and typically every move and gesture he makes seem intentional.  Here he inhabits Bernie's reserved, charming persona, speaking gently and sweetly, building layers into the character, most of which remain hidden but definitely there.  He has a very specific physicality and deliverance that he never breaks, the comedy/musician Jack Black is never revealed.  He even sings sweet hymns without a single trace of scatting.  Shirley MacLaine, meanwhile, is thoroughly unlikable as Marjorie, but it's fairly easy to play such a role.  It's the moments where Bernie tries to unveil Marjorie's inner beauty that MacLaine excels, momentarily letting just a hint of softness show in the lines on her face, just to reset and steel themselves again.  Matthew McConaughey gets a plum minor supporting role as the popular town sheriff who decides to take the unpopular opinion and ride Bernie and his inevitable crime hard.  It's just one of the many roles McConaughey has taken in recent years to reset his career, and be seen as something other than the jokey, shirtless, drawling stoner.

Director Linklater seems utterly fascinated with Bernie's story, and his obvious interest is the true draw of the film.  It's a rather slight story that could be presented any number of ways, but Linklater delivers it even handedly.  He's quite obviously charmed by Bernie Tiede and wants the viewer to see that too.  He also doesn't seek to excuse Bernie's crime, or to say that he should go unpunished, but instead present that he was treated unfairly by the law in the severity of his punishment.  Linklater uses a talking heads testimonial device, interviewing actors playing the townsfolk to give their generally favourable opinions of Bernie.  For the most part these talking heads are amazing, to the point where I was wondering if they were actual townsfolk of Carthage (that is until they started appearing in other scenes).  It's a gentle movie, that despite it's darker third act, is still somewhat uplifting.