I can only describe Bernie as one very specific thing and I realize how obscure it sounds even as I elaborate, but to me, one could only define this absurdist masterpiece as a Louvin Brothers song that has been put to film in an homage to the mockumentary stylings of Christopher Guest, while clearly taking heavy influence from the underlying social tensions of American Psycho. Seriously, that is exactly what I felt while watching this film, which technically came out in 2011, but has not seen wide release until the past year or so, making it a contender during awards season, as well as proving to be one of the most overlooked works of the last year, in a very literal sense, considering that people did not simply watch it and dismiss it, but actually completely avoided it all together. I am fully aware that he film contains two of the most off-putting actors in Hollywood, in Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, but both are doing some excellent work in this film, particularly Black who goes against his garrulous and bombastic traditional role, for something much more reserved, but equally grandiose in its spectacle. It is great to see Richard Linklater back in the game providing viewers with some really great work, quite reminiscent of his early films, Slacker in particular, wherein a society is clearly in a state of crumbling disillusion but can only manage to deal with such issues by either condemning those around them or living vicariously through those doing far better than themselves. It is clear from the onset that viewers are to take Bernie lightly, the title cards intercut throughout the film, along with the incorporation of interviews by the townspeople manage to undermine any sort of legitimate commentary on the nature of deception and psychological breakdown, but as Linklater reminds viewers, on more than one occasion throughout the film, as much as one may mock the characters within the film, at the end of the day they are truly based off of real individuals making the humor become far less laughable and incredibly real, much like The Informant!, but with an even higher degree of scathing social criticism, directed wholly at the "heart of America."
Bernie, centers on the title character, played by Jack Black, who is a flamboyant, but well loved assistant funeral director in the small Texas town of Carthege. While everyone is rather certain on the homosexuality of Bernie they do seem intent on claiming him to be one of the most standup guys they have ever met, and find him to be a true gift to the elderly community, particularly the older women who welcome his hospitality in a time of great sadness. Bernie, in fact, takes a particular liking to one of the older women in the community, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) who is initially dismissive to the awkward advances of Bernie, but comes around after a few visits, realizing that he is indeed the only nice person in the entire town, never mind that Marjorie made a reputation as an incredibly mean individual turning down those who requested loans at the bank she ran in place of her late husband. Things boil over for Bernie, when, after quitting his job at the funeral home and becoming solely dependent on Marjorie, he realizes that she is only using him as a chauffeur, caretaker and general servant with little care for his happiness, going so far as to openly chastise him for spending too much time with his two hobbies: flying and musical theater. During one day at Marjorie's house, Bernie becomes incapable of starring at the old woman over-chewing her food any longer and shots her with a hunting rifle and subsequently stuffing her in a meat freezer. The town goes on assuming that Marjorie is simply suffering from a bad stroke, yet when Marjorie's stock broker expects fowl play on the part of Bernie he manages to obtain a search warrant, where in they discover her body. At this point Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) a Texas district attorney enters the picture with hopes of prosecuting the murder, yet when he realizes that even after Bernie openly admits to the crime, the townspeople still believe him to be innocent, leading to Danny moving the trial to another county, a rare occurrence, especially since the notion of a "fair trial" would hinder Bernie. Within his new trial Bernie is found guilty and sent to jail, where he continues to receive visits from the people of Carthege who presume him innocent.
This movie is a scathing film, although its lightheartedness and concern for the opinions of the common person would lead many a viewer to assume otherwise. Linklater, however, manages to even trick viewers into believing Bernie to be an incredibly likable guy. In constructing the narrative in such a way the film causes one to consider what effect community involvement and outreach play into the judgement of a character. Sure Bernie is a great role model within the church and goes out of his way to spend money on those less fortunate than himself, but the narrative constantly sneaks in reminders that he is not an entirely functional person and certainly exploits others when the situation proves beneficial, whether it be the sale of coffins, or the use of an aging woman's money to engage in lavish world travels. Bernie's dandy veneer is always to be questioned, yet Linklater's incorporation of praiseful words by the townspeople make that difficult to do, not to mention how likable Black makes Bernie seem, nonetheless, he is quite capable of murder and deceit and certainly has no problem using devious tactics throughout the film. Secondly, the film questions the notion of a "good and wholesome" middle America, one where nothing bad can happen and when it does it is clearly the result of muckraking by outside forces, in this case the folks of Carthege believe Danny Buck Davidson to be using his political aspirations to destroy a stand-up guy like Bernie, and while this may have a degree of validity, it is clear that Danny really does realize how disillusioned everyone in the town has become in relation to the town hero. It is no accident that it is only through creating a cultural/social difference between Bernie and the common folk in the trial that Danny is able to secure a guilty verdict, by a simple question of what wine pairs best with fish. The townspeople point to this moment in the trial as an assured moment of his demise, it made him certifiably different and therefore capable of fault. Linklater seems to suggest that as long as an individual can obtain insider status within the "heart of America" they can get away with anything...even murder. However, one cannot forget that Linklater is merely adapting a very real story, one that causes me to consider my understanding of human nature far more than I imagined I would upon initially viewings this superb dark satire.
Key Scene: I laughed the entire time Jack Black sang "Love Lifted Me" in his car, and proceeded to laugh through the rest of the film, but his opening moment is so ridiculous that it is hard not to become entirely occupied in the narrative unfolding.
Another gem watchable on Netflix, do yourself a favor and watch this film, I can only assume that you will want to pass it along as did I, because it is in need of as many fans as possible.