It’s really hard to be genuinely surprised by a movie these days. With the almost absolute destruction of any barriers to information, thanks to the wide proliferation of internet access across the world, hyper-specialized news outlets catering to any and all fandoms and fetishes have sprouted like weeds in the unkempt yard of an anti-social Doomsday Prepper.
Are you into saltwater fly-fishing? Google it and see the myriad websites that pop up just bustling with tomes of information on the subject. Or perhaps you count yourself as a knot-tying hobbyist? Then be sure to check in at the IGKT (International Guild of Knot Tyers) website and sign up for a five-year membership for only 100 British Pounds. Or maybe you have an inexplicable fascination with the 1907 Jamestown Exposition? Then scour the internet and you can read articles on the subject until your eyes fall out.
The practical consequence of this in the world of cinema is, if you so choose, every minute of every moment of a film’s existence can be at your fingertips, from conception, to development, to pre-production, to production, to post-production, to release, and all the way through to the final little Easter eggs nestled into special features of the ultra-ultimate-final cut version of the DVD. Not to mention that, via Youtube, you can watch and analyze the film’s trailer (or teaser for the eventual trailer) until you swear you can see a second shooter on the grassy knoll.
While I’m generally a fan of the practically infinite supply of movie news produced daily over the world wide web (you wouldn’t be reading, and I wouldn’t be typing these words otherwise), it has made it increasingly difficult to enter a movie theater with the naivete I used to have as a child. With Bernie though, my mind was as blank a slate going into a film as I can remember in some time.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t heard or read anything about it. Even with its independent status, the film had shown up at a few festivals (such as SXSW in Austin, TX), so I had read some previews and reviews, but for one reason or another it just didn’t stick. It may have had something to do with Richard Linklater‘s low profile as of late (his last three theatrical releases, A Scanner Darkly, Fast Food Nation, and Me and Orson Wells, combined for a domestic hull of less than $10 million), but even with Jack Black starring, Bernie didn’t make a blip on my radar. In the end though, I was happy to see the film with an unvarnished mind, because the film turned out to be one of the most unexpected treats I have had at the movies in sometime.
Bernie is an interesting mix of true life and fiction. Based on the article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth (who co-wrote the film with director Richard Linklater), the film chronicles the true story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), an assistant funeral director in Carthage, Texas who befriended a rich, cantankerous old widow by the name of Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Despite her reputation in town as a bitch with a capital B, Bernie manages to melt the beast’s heart and the two become friends to the point where Marjorie hires Bernie as her personal assistant.
Becoming inseparable, the two travel the globe together, taking in famous sights all over the world, but Marjorie can only mask her misanthropy for so long before Bernie’s hatred grows to the point where he snaps, shooting her in the back four times.
What makes Bernie so spectacular though is that it is not just a cinematic retelling of a murder story you could see on Discovery ID.
Along with the cinematic teleplay acted out by Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey (who plays the town’s DA, Danny Davidson), much of the film is an actual documentary with numerous interviews of actual Carthage residents who were either personal friends or acquaintances of Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent. For those of you familiar with Warren Beatty’s Reds (a biopic of American radicals John Reed and Louise Bryant) and its “witnesses” segments, the concept is very much the same, but while Reds briefly interjected interviews of real life cohorts to give the film more subtext, the “witnesses” in Bernie play a much more significant role, taking part in what feels close to half of the film.
The result is a genre-bending film that defies easy classification. Is it a crime-drama? A documentary? A dark comedy? Or some amalgamation?
To put it in classic Hollywood “mix” terms, I would say its Fargo-meets-This is Spinal Tap-meets-any of the numerous documentaries about small town murders.
The greatest strength of the film though is its ability to capture the flavor of the locale. The major reason why I rank cinema ahead of all other forms of art is its unique ability to capture place and time, and having driven through East Texas (including Carthage), I’d say Linklater and crew hit the nail on the head.
Most of this flavor is provided through the interviews with the actual townspeople who, while trying to keep my smug elitism in check as much as possible, are utterly priceless. No actor, not even some Frankenstein monster made from parts of Brando, Dean, De Niro, and Day-Lewis, could come up with characters as “unique” as these East Texans, and no writer, no matter how brilliant, could invent the dialogue that naturally spews out of these interviewees. (My favorite moment is when a man divides Texas into “5″ regions, simply saying about the sixth region, the Panhandle, that no one remembers it).
Of course, as interesting as these “documentary” moments are, the film couldn’t hold up if the narrative sections didn’t work, but these are superb as well. In particular, the acting from the two leads, Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, mesmerize.
I’ve always considered myself a fan of Jack Black, even as his work has become increasingly less consistent over the past few years, so it was exciting to see him take on this dramatic role and completely own it the way he does. Playing an extremely fastidious, obviously homosexual, man living in an area not especially in tune to his lifestyle, Black gets this man down even to his walk. Though he does slip in and out of the accent a bit, it is easily the best performance of Black’s career.
Veteran Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine also gives an astonishingly nuanced performance of a bitter woman who long ago shut out world, briefly opening up again, only to revert to her hateful ways after the newness of Bernie wears out. Both performances feel very real to life, and unlike many roles in this vein, are more than just showcases to try to illustrate the actors’ abilities.
As I mentioned at the outset, I was really shocked at how much I enjoyed this film. Funny, insightful, and just plain entertaining, it’s probably the best film in Linklater’s extremely varied and inconsistent filmography outside of Waking Life. Bernie is the type of really good, but small film, that will inevitably be trampled by bigger and louder films come awards season, but here’s to hoping that Black and MacClaine’s performance get their just recognition, and if Bernie doesn’t find a slot in my top ten at year’s end, 2012 will be a year in cinema we will be talking about for decades and decades to come.