Bernie is one of those movies that not enough people have seen. Richard Linklater often makes under the radar gems, and I think this is one of his best feature films, which also happens to contain Jack Black at his absolute best. Pitch-black-dark and viciously funny, this is an inventive piece of true-crime cinema, filled with tons of incredible supporting performances, and spotlighting a story so bizarre and twisted that no screenwriter could have ever conjured it up. Co-written by Linklater and Skip Hollandswoth, the film centers on a quirky assistant funeral director named Bernie Tiede (Black), who happened to be one of the most well-loved members of a small Texas community called Carthage. The film pivots on his strange relationship with an older widow, a truly nasty piece of work named Marjorie (an amazing Shirley MacLaine), and how Bernie is literally the only person in town who can tolerate her. But things get crazy when Marjorie turns up dead (and folded into a freezer) and Bernie is prime suspect number one. It can’t be stressed enough how brilliant Black was in this film, and while I’m typically more of a fan of him when he’s in a supporting capacity (Tropic Thunder and The Cable Guy are faves), this is easily his greatest overall on-screen effort.
Released in 2011 to mostly supportive reviews but not much in the way of box office receipts, Bernie becomes something strangely hilarious through the use of a faux-interview framing device, with all of the townspeople rallying to support Bernie, even if they truly know he’s guilty. Linklater’s sense of the satiric along with just general ha-ha comedy is in full effect all throughout, with moments that are both laugh out loud funny and slyly hilarious. Matthew McConaughey was superb as the local district attorney trying to make sense of the chaotic mess, sporting an awesome cowboy hat and total laconic charm, while all of the naturalistic performances from the various Carthage residents sealed the black comedy with a devious kiss. How this film is able to shift back and forth between tragedy and comedy is also extremely interesting, as Linklater always employs a subversive touch to whatever material he tackles. Dick Pope’s unassuming but extremely effective camerawork never intruded on anything, while the fleet editing by Sandra Adair kept the comic timing sharp and the pacing brisk; the films feels modest yet still consistently creative. I have long been a fan of Linklater, and this is definitely one of the best movies of his unique, varied, and often underrated career.