Let’s talk about Richard Linklater, the man who just doesn’t seem to care what you think. Or, to be more specific, what his critics think. And that’s a good thing. How else could an unknown director make a film like 1991’s Slacker (a radical experiment in form, with crazily eclectic subject matter), parlay it into the high school comedy Dazed and Confused (a much more conventional structure, though still concerned primarily with dialogue) and then tackle a beautifully sweet and sensitive love story in Before Sunrise (an audacious narrowing of focus to two people and one night)? The pattern in Linklater’s creativity is that there is no pattern. Through well over a dozen films, the director/writer has refused to be pigeonholed. Although “refused” is not exactly the right word either, since Linklater is most likely indifferent to those pigeonholing efforts. He just keeps on moving and does movies like the animated experiments Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly—two of the recent cinema’s truly innovative films. He’s even dipped his toe into mainstream comedy in School of Rock and Bad News Bears. And now he gives us a murder story, in a surprisingly simple but cleverly subtle package.
Bernie is as much about the town of Carthage, Texas, as it is about its infamous resident Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), the town’s mortician and prime suspect in the murder of one of the its most despised citizens, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Unlike Nugent, Bernie is conspicuously loved by all. When he’s not helping direct the high school musical, he’s teaching Sunday school. Like a well-played mystery, Linklater’s excellent, darkly humorous (and true) story is interspersed with tantalizing interviews of the community’s residents. Linklater uses real East Texas folks to play the parts, a device that serves as the perfect balance against the drama that leads up to Bernie’s fatal encounter with the rich bitch of a widow. The comedy is sharp with some of the film’s best lines coming from those townsfolk.
Black, MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey (as the sheriff determined to put Bernie away) never quite over-play their parts to the point of annoyance. Black, especially, seems to possess an innate restraint that prevents him from slipping too far into caricature with Bernie, who we come to learn is not nearly as complicated as we first suspect. The 78-year-old MacLaine approaches the role of Marjorie with a certain reverence, turning in yet another in a career of great performances. As Marjorie, she cares little about what the locals think of her, though Bernie’s persistence at befriending her makes her almost likable (to a point). Soon, though, worn down by her obsessiveness and verbal abuse, Bernie begins to feel the strain. One of the funniest scenes comes when Marjorie bullies Bernie into trying to shoot an armadillo that’s digging in her garden. It is a deed that does not befit the gentle Bernie.
With Bernie,, Linklater once again has proven himself a fearless director who is neither complacent nor formulaic. I loved the film, and I’ll be eagerly awaiting his next project. Of course, since I’m a critic, Linklater himself most likely won’t care what I think. And that’s a very, very good thing.
Writer: Richard Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth
Starring: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Release Date: Apr. 27 (limited)