190) Bernie (2011) Dir: Richard Linklater Date Released: May 4, 2012 Date Seen: June 16, 2012 Rating: 4.25/5
Bernie's easily my favorite of Richard Linklater's recent films (though I still haven't seen Me and Orson Welles) because it runs as fast and as far as it can with a pretty heady central. The screenplay that he worked on with Skip Hollandsoworth for Bernie treats the audience as members of the jury in a theoretical trial that plays out each time their film screens. What do you see when you look at Bernie Tiede (Jack Black): a really swell, giving guy that was driven over the edge, or an opportunist that did a good job of hiding his true intentions? The way that Linklater's locals describe what Bernie was like is hilariously unsparing. These are people that in real life already had their turn judging Bernie; they have clearly been champing at the bit for another opportunity to tell people what they think of Bernie. Everyone agrees that Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) was a needy old bat, so MacLaine is at best, pathetic and at worst, a manipulative old bitch. MacLaine acts the bejeepers out of her part (favorite leading female performance of the year?), too, incidentally. But what does Bernie want with her?
But I think Bernie's strength as a film comes from the way it accents the vague mysteries that undermine the neat-ness of the Bernie Tiede/Marjorie Nugent murder case. Case in point: the scene where Black is being interrogated on the witness stand during his character's trial (Linklater delights in blurring the line between fact and fiction, evading the question of responsibility by asking us to be active participants in deciding, based on the film's comprehensive dramatization, what we think really happened) to be riveting. Bernie clearly means what he's saying, unsure of why the prosecutor would suggest such awful things about him. But in that moment, Bernie's conviction is not enough anymore. In fact, the way that Linklater's camera moves slowly ramps into a close-up of Bernie's face made me think: maybe this man backed himself into a corner to the point where he really believed the lies that he told while under oath. Bernie's never denies full responsibility for his actions: he confessed to his crimes, so that's kind of a given. But while on the witness stand, he is fairly evasive. He can't even admit that it's possible that he was attracted to MacLaine's character's wealth.
With his characteristically provocative dry sense of humor, Linklater effectively accents the gaps in Bernie Tiede's story and has made a pretty winning existential comedy. The key different between such a comedy and most existential dramas is that in Bernie, we don't watch an individual become overwhelmed with the knowledge of his own powerless-ness. Instead, we watch and realize the powerless-ness of his community, people that failed to understand the actions of an individual they still think of as their most upstanding citizen. Sort of like a funny reversal of The Tenant...kinda. Sorta. Maybe.