The latest left turn in director Richard Linklater's ever-surprising career sees the director take on a true story that seems to be perfect Coen brothers fodder: that of Carthage, Texas, funeral director Bernie Tiede, the town's most beloved and popular character, whose friendship with the recluse, curmudgeonly widow Marjorie Nugent ended up with him killing her from the back with four shots.  A small-town true story that ends up being stranger than fiction, Bernie becomes an excuse for Mr. Linklater to redeploy his "docu-fiction" device from Fast Food Nation into a kinda-sorta-fake-documentary where the central characters are portrayed by actors and actual Carthage residents are interviewed throughout and/or play their own roles as local folk.

     The result works two ways: as a study of a small-town "deep South" community, paying attention to its changing dynamics without ever condescending to the locals; and as an investigation into the concept of justice and its shifting territories in modern-day America. Bernie Tiede was so loved and respected by a community who grew wary and displeased with Marjorie Nugent that they would reason he must have had really good reasons to do something so out of character - to the point of blaming local public promoter Danny Buck Davidson for his arrest and conviction. On the surface a lively, quirky comedy, the film does touch upon the "heart of darkness" a lot of people feel in the "old South", and Mr. Linklater's smarts lie not only in blending well with Carthage's actual folk, but in choosing Jack Black for the role of Bernie. It's a tour-de-force performance that reveals whole new layers for an actor too often typecast in bumbling, confidence-trickster roles, but who disappears inside Bernie in ways you never imagined he could. It towers over everyone else in Bernie, especially since Matthew McConaughey's oily Texas lawyer gets little screen time and Shirley MacLaine's one-note performance as Marjorie offers the veteran actress little chance to stretch or shine.

     And that is also part of the question raised by Bernie: just how much are we allowing ourselves to be charmed by the seemingly perfect Bernie and how much are we projecting? That is part of Mr. Linklater's cleverness in building his thoughtful, unusual film.

Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey

Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Mr. Linklater, Skip Hollandsworth, based on Mr. Hollandsworth's Texas Monthly article "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas"
Cinematography: Dick Pope (colour, processing by Deluxe)
Music: Graham Reynolds
Designer: Bruce Curtis
Costumes: Kari Perkins
Editor: Sandra Adair
Producers: Celine Rattray, Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer, Matt Williams, David McFadzean, Judd Payne, Dete Meserve, Ginger Sledge, Mr. Linklater (Mandalay Vision, Wind Dancer Films and Detour Filmproduction in association with Collins House Productions and Horsethief Pictures)
USA, 2011, 99 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Colombo 9 (Lisbon), July 23rd 2012


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