When: Thursday, 16 August - Sunday, 16 September
Where: Various Cinemas, Auckland
Sometimes I crave the film equivalent of a McHappy Meal: something mindless, comforting, and wrongly tasty. Other times I want a kick in the tear ducts, a savage one. Rarely do I encounter a film that strikes just the right balance between these two poles, that is at once intelligent and entertaining. Bernie is this kind of rare cinematic treat.
The film is inspired by a piece in the 1998 Texas Monthly by crime reporter Skip Hollandsworth, which starts, "Marjorie Nugent was the richest widow in an eccentric town full of rich widows. Bernie Tiede was an assistant funeral home director who became her companion. When she disappeared, nobody seemed alarmed. When he confessed to killing her, nobody seemed outraged."
Bernie (Jack Black) is queasily sweet, universally adored by his community, and the only person who can bear the manipulative Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), who comes to control every minute of his life. Although the reward for his endurance is monetary (he becomes the sole inheritor of her oil and banking fortune), nobody doubts his intentions. There's something improbable, but also childlike, about his generosity and his inability to say no to people.
Black curbs his most irritating tendencies to give an endearing, convincing, and ultimately confounding performance. The actor is undeniably a strange little man, and he channels his eccentricities perfectly into what the townspeople of Carthage, Texas, describe as Bernie's "tutti frutti" mannerisms (they suspect he might be a "little light in the loafers"). The morality and motivations of Bernie’s actions and his relationship with Marjorie is spectacularly grey, and the film reminds us of how few characters in cinema walk the entire spectrum of moral inconsistency. I was surprised at how fondly I came to feel for this curious character.
MacLaine is typically solid as scowling, witchy Marjorie — it's the kind of role she's spent decades perfecting. Matthew McConaughey, who cannot be better described than as "a dude who spent most of his career Owenwilsoning his shirtless way through life", has recently embarked on a mission to prove he is A Serious Actor with roles in The Lincoln Lawyer, Killer Joe, and Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike. Here he's the cluey district attorney, hell-bent on prosecuting Bernie. It's not quite enough to shed the horrific rom-com traumas of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days, but he shows a deft comic timing we haven't seen before.
Director Richard Linklater has dabbled in documentary with Fast Food Nation, and perhaps that's why Bernie posseses the authenticity of a doco. It's difficult to track the overarching themes of Linklater's disparate films, but Bernie goes beyond the small world of Carthage to comment on the extremes of human behaviour. His masterstroke is to cast the gossipy Carthage townspeople as the film's narrators. No Hollywood creations could ever be as entertaining, disturbing, or delightful as these chicken-fried-bacon Southerners who are eternally, sweetly, and stubbornly devoted to Bernie.
Bernie is an affectionate ode to the oddity of small-town America. This is a place where obscene oil wealth, diners where "you kill it, we cook it", rabid evangelism, and shooting armadillos in the backyard are all markers of a strange, salty standard of normality. Bernie never condescends to its subjects or its audience. It's absurd, but never ludicrous. And although Bernie's crime is revealed early on, we're kept in a state of enthralled disbelief until the bitter end, and that surely is the sign of a master filmmaker.