Review by Alasdair Duncan
In a number of ways, Bernie feels like a return for director Richard Linklater. There’s the obvious fact that it’s set in his home state of Texas, where Slacker and Dazed And Confused also took place. Stylistically, though, Bernie also represents a return to the simplicity of those early films. Linklater’s work has grown increasingly complex over the last decade, but Bernie is a simple story told with an eye for small details and a lightness of touch. A macabre little comedy that takes its inspiration from real-life events in the Texan town of Carthage, Linklater’s latest takes place on a relatively small scale, but it’s also his most enjoyable and rewarding film in some time.
Bernie is a difficult film to review without talking about the plot, so I’ll try and steer away from that as much as possible. Suffice to say, it’s very far removed from your usual true-crime fare, skating the line between real and absurd in a way that almost feels like the work of David Lynch. Its three central characters — an undertaker, a wealthy widow and a small-town sheriff — are played by Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, respectively. Their lives intersect in expected and unexpected ways, and thanks to a deftly-written script and some very skilful performances, some tricky moral questions begin to emerge.
Part of the reason Bernie is so good is that Richard Linklater knows how to get the best out of his actors. Jack Black is always at his most satisfying when he tones the wackiness down a bit, and Linklater seems to appreciate this. His character, Bernie, is a nice guy — which, of course, is what they always say when it turns out that somebody is actually not so nice. Bernie is a liar and a criminal, but the film doesn’t come down either way on this. We’re not positioned to sympathise with or to judge him, just presented with him as the flawed character he is. This ambiguity is really Bernie’s greatest strength — for the lightness of its tone and the simplicity of its story, Bernie is the kind of film that lingers on with you long after it’s done. Much like its troubled central character, the film itself is simultaneously sweet and deeply unsettling.
BERNIE opens August 16.