Ford On Film

Chronicles of a silver screen addict

Film Review: Bernie

One of those true crime films that seems completely unbelievable but is actually based almost entirely on fact, Bernie is a rather odd and kooky film that goes from fairly light and breezy comedy, to a batch of incredibly dark humour, to shocking moments of violence and finally to a courtroom drama. Bernie throws so many different elements into the mix that, even though they don’t always entirely convince or entertain, it’s almost impossible to be bored, and even harder not to crack at least one smile.

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The story of a beloved Texan Mortician (Jack Black) who fell in love with the bitter 81 year old widow Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), and was driven so mad by her jealousy and cruelty that one day he shot her four times in the back, Bernie was on first release criticised, mostly by real life townspeople and family of the deceased who hated the idea of turning this shocking story into a comedy. Rest assured; the film is not disrespectful.

Perhaps that’s partly because Bernie is hardly the laugh out loud, silly and juvenile comedy we’ve come to expect from Jack Black in recent years (there are a few really funny moments but mostly the film is subtly funny and incredibly oddball); or maybe it’s simply because Bernie doesn’t treat any of the really serious events portrayed as amusing. The moment Bernie kills the elderly Marjorie is actually tragic, as we see himalmost completely transform, from the soft and tender man he’s always been, to a cold and disturbed killer who just wants to be himself but can’t.

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One masterstroke of director Richard Linklater is to use a mixture of actors and real people as the townsfolk interviewed in documentary style about the case. It’s only when Matthew McConaughey turns up as the local DA that I realised there were actors beside Black and MacLaine. Still, the best feature of Bernie is of course the leading man. Many times Jack Black has been criticised as being lazy in his performances; ever since High Fidelity and School of Rock turned him into ‘that lovable, rock music loving schlub’, it has seemed just about every film he’s acted has been some variation on this form.

It’s delightful, therefore, to say that Bernie is Jack Black’s least ‘Jack Black’ performance in a long time. In fact, you rarely even remember you’re watching him, as he fully sinks into the role of Bernie Tiede (having seen interviews with Tiede, it has to be said that Jack’s performance is pitch perfect). From his camp walk and soft way of speech, to his care with the customers at his funeral home and patience with Marjorie, Black really gives us insight into a man who just tried to be good, despite the troubles he was stuck with. Sure, it’s a very one sided film, and doesn’t give much of Marjorie’s side of the story, but that doesn’t stop Jack’s portrayal of the character of Bernie being terrific.

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Kudos, also, to the supporting cast, who are unanimously well cast and perform exceedingly well. MacLaine, who I will always have time for after she starred in The Apartment, one of my all time favourite films, is given a character who is deliberately unlikeable and miserable, but portrays Marjorie in such a way that you get a vague understanding of her unhappiness with the world, and she doesn’t come off as too one dimensional.

McConaughey, on the other hand, has a harder role. DA Danny Buck Davidson isn’t a dislikeable man but a hardened professional, who wants Bernie to get the sentence he deserves. It says something about the likeability of Bernie that Davidson is practically a villain, despite doing his job fairly and the fact that Bernie is, after all, a murderer. McConaughey has been absolutely on fire the last few years, and his performance in Bernie in no exception. The townsfolk who are portrayed by actors, meanwhile, are just as believable as the real humans themselves and that in itself is just a remarkable achievement.

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Despite a few sections that are of lesser quality (a few too many scenes of Black singing and a long period between murder and courtroom), and a tone that occasionally struggles to be both funny, dramatic and realistic at the same time, Bernie is an entertaining and well crafted black comedy. Though Linklater is clearly on the side that suggests Bernie is almost entirely an innocent and good man, and very little effort is made to show the other side, we still get a loveable character that does wrong, and admits so, but never stops being good at heart. Good support, a nice documentary feel and a near faultless performance from Jack Black make this a very enjoyable, if not entirely truthful, true crime story.

Grade: B+

By Harry Ford

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