SXSW 2012: “Bernie” – Review by Daniel Rester

The team of director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life) and comedic actor Jack Black return for the dark comedy Bernie. While their previous film together, School of Rock, was a fun family film, Bernie is in a whole different field. This outing studies a man who could have been a manipulative liar or a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” case.

Bernie stars Black as Bernie Tiede, a friendly mortician from Carthage, Texas. Tiede not only sees to the dead, but also takes part in church activities and town plays, turning him into a likable guy throughout Carthage. An unusual friendship begins to grow after a wealthy woman named Mrs. Nugent (played by Shirley MacLaine) gains Tiede’s assistance in tending to her husband’s funeral. Though Nugent is berated by most of the people of Carthage because of her harsh demeanor, Tiede reaches out to her. The two then become very close “friends” before Tiede eventually kills the woman. The aftermath of the murder brings about varied opinions from the people of Carthage.

I must say that, while engaging at times, Bernie is a lesser work of Linklater’s. After a mesmerizing opening scene involving the prepping of a body for a funeral, Linklater starts to heavily rely on a docudrama style to tell the story of Tiede. While docudrama styles can work well in ways, Linklater uses “interview commentaries” continuously to the point of them actually becoming irksome after a while. By this, I mean that he provides countless commentaries by Carthage people (some real from the actual events that inspired the film (or supposedly real), some fake) to the point that the actors are barely on screen sometimes–and the film starts to feel like one of those dull videos shown in history or criminology classes. The second half of the film picks up, however, as Linklater lets the real story develop and lessens the amount of repetitious commentaries. This half is actually arresting, but it couldn’t camouflage the boredom I felt from the first half. Linklater does make good use of cinematography and location throughout the film’s entirety, though, as it does take place in his native Texas.

Black is actually quite restrained and believable as Tiede. He manages to provide his usual charm, but in a mild manner and with a dose of darkness. The display of his character (from both Black and Linklater’s work) really does make the audience wonder about criminal acts done by “innocent people.” MacLaine is superb, as well, as the bitter old woman that becomes the subject of Tiede’s actions. I also highly enjoyed Matthew McConaughey in a change-of-pace role as Danny Buck, the local District Attorney who sets out to bring Tiede down for the murder of Nugent. While all three of the actors mentioned shined, I just wish I could have seen more of them.

Linklater does provide some excellent moments of crafting to Bernie, but the movie is less entertaining and feels less personal than many of his previous efforts—I never fully felt Linklater’s connection to his characters, as with something like Dazed and Confused. Yes, his characters are interesting, but perhaps he should have shown more of them and less of the thoughts about them by other people. Black (especially), MacLaine, and McConaughey are remarkable in Bernie, but I just wish I could say the same about the rest of the film.

Rating: 2 1/2 out of 4 stars.

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