I've seen the words satire and mockumentary applied to Richard Linklater's latest film, "Bernie," but I'm not sure that's quite appropriate. At no point did I ever get the sense that Linklater was poking fun at any of the characters. If he was, he was doing it so gently that I completely missed the barbs. Rather, "Bernie" is more of a love letter to a small town called Carthage in the Eastern part of Texas, whose inhabitants find themselves in the middle of a bizarre and intriguing murder mystery. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who works at the town mortuary, is so good natured and helpful to others, that everybody loves him. He strikes up a friendship with a rich widow named Marge Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) after the death of her husband. Marge is mean and miserable, the polar opposite of Bernie, but she takes a liking to him and they become inseparable. Then the relationship goes sour and Marge ends up shot multiple times and stuffed in a freezer. However, when Bernie is caught red-handed and confesses to the deed, nobody in Carthage wants to blame him for it.
Events reenacted by Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey as District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson are supplemented by interviews with the real inhabitants of Carthage, mostly elderly, who knew the actual people involved. These interviews are not delineated from the fiction in any way, and only the end credits verify that they aren't actors. It feels like a mockumentary, but then the interviews are totally sincere, and though many parts of the film seem like they've been invented or exaggerated to play up the local color, after reading a few articles about the production, it turns out that "Bernie" hews awfully close to the truth. The blending of the fact and fiction is fascinating. The participation by the Carthage residents lends more legitimacy to the reenactments we see onscreen, and saves Linklater the trouble of trying to dramatize the most unbelievable part of the whole story - the reactions of the locals to the murder. On the flip side, the reenactments illustrate the stories from the interviews in a manner that documentary footage wouldn't be able to provide.
Jack Black's performance as Bernie is excellent. It might have come off as comedic in another context, but Black makes Bernie so loveable and so self-assured in his eccentricities, while still retaining a few important ambiguities, that you can't really laugh at him. It's immediately apparent why everyone likes him so much, because Bernie thrives on socializing and is very good at taking care of people and helping them to feel better about themselves. Black and Linklater do a good job of extrapolating what went so wrong between Bernie and Marge without ever picking a side. The Carthage residents might be convinced of Bernie's innocence, or at least that there were significant extenuating circumstances, but the filmmakers use the reenactments to introduce several moments of doubt without being too obvious about it. Sure, the DA's tactics were pretty underhanded, but wasn't he justified considering the circumstances? In "Bernie," prejudice is a two-way street.
I really appreciated how the film portrayed Carthage, which is one of those small Middle American towns that seems to run on gossip. Linklater doesn't hesitate to put the area's considerable charms and its strong-minded, plainspoken community members on display. He clearly has a great affection for the place and its culture and its quirks. Tagging along with Bernie on his rounds gives up scenes set at the local community theater, the church, shops, restaurants, and various events. There are many mysteries in "Bernie," and one is working out why the lovely town of Carthage rallied so strongly behind a confessed murderer. The answer lies in the relationships Bernie formed with his supporters, and the way he was perceived by those who knew him - or thought they knew him. You see so many films that are set in particular places, and draw from them, but don't say much about them. The story of "Bernie," however, is really all about Carthage.
This is my favorite film of the year so far, one that really surprised me. I'm not as familiar with Richard Linklater's filmography as I probably should be, but I can't think of anything he's done that's similar to "Bernie" in theme or in tone or approach or anything else. The movie comes off as an experiment in some ways, but it's a very rewarding one. And I'm so glad to see Jack Black in a role that he could really bring something to, one that I honestly can't imagine anyone else playing. I hope "Bernie" doesn't get buried, and more people get to see it. This is easily the most original and delightful true-crime movie I've seen in years.