Richard Linklater’s Bernie was completed in 2011 and had its debut at the LA film festival. It wasn’t until April 2012 that it had a limited release run in the USA, and now, another year on, it is finally arriving on screens in the UK.
The release schedule is not the only curious thing about Bernie. Based on a true story (and in this case it seems that for once, a film ˜based on reality’ has stuck fairly close to the actual events “ though the facts differ depending on who you listen to) Bernie is Bernie Tiede, a small town mortician in East Texas. Played by Jack Black, dialling down his act by many notches, Bernie is a gentle, generous soul “ committed to the church and the community and believing that his role as mortician, funeral director and general comforter of the bereaved is just what the Lord had in mind for him.
We are introduced to Bernie through segments of action, interspersed with talking heads interviews of townspeople discussing their memories of him. However, these are all played by actors and it’s unclear whether the statements they give are based on real interviews with actual townsfolk or the imaginings of the writers. This technique continues as the film builds its unusual story “ and excuse the spoilers, but they’re in the trailer – as Bernie meets, woos and marries a wealthy and spectacularly unpleasant widow.
The ˜townsfolk’ express their surprise at the match, and at the couple’s lavish spending, as they travel the world. And they continue to express their surprise after Bernie is arrested for shooting his wife and storing her body in the freezer.
It’s a problematic approach, as the interesting things about Bernie is it’s true story credentials and the mystery of why Bernie did what he did. Was he a loving husband and good man who had a moment of madness after being ground down through mistreatment by his unpleasant wife, or was he a conniving trickster who married for money before bumping off the woman he had never cared for? By adding layers of unreality (like the ˜interviews’, or through fictionalisation of certain events for narrative purposes) Linklater makes it harder to get to the bottom of the story. In addition, the contributors are all portrayed as southern eccentrics and the city comes across as a community of oddballs “ the film in general is pitched as a kind of quirky comedy that feels uncomfortable, given it’s essentially a real-life murder story.
In fact, this whole pseudo-documentary style just begs the question of why Linklater didn’t just make an actual documentary. This might have resolved some of the tonal and structural problems of the movie. It has been made as a linear narrative, but by far the most interesting segment is the third act after Bernie has been charged with murder which raises questions around whether he gets a fair deal from the justice system and is the strongest part of the film. But by the time the film arrived here, I’d pretty much disconnected.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that this an opportunity missed “ what could have been a fascinating documentary in the mould of The Imposter, raising genuine questions about fairness and justice, is instead a fairly unengaging movie “ admittedly with an nicely nuanced central performance from Jack Black “ but an uneven and slightly odd tone.