Jack Black hasn't been in many good films lately. His last good movie was Tropic Thunder four years ago, and he's been stinking up the joint with middling efforts like Gulliver's Travels and The Big Year ever since. The best thing he has done since Tropic Thunder is his uncredited role in last year's The Muppets.
Well, he now has another good film under his belt.
Black got back together with an old friend, his School of Rock director Richard Linklater, for Bernie—and Linklater's casting of Black was a masterstroke. As Bernie Tiede, the real convicted killer of Marjorie Nugent in the Texas town of Carthage, Black delivers a performance to be remembered. He's an actor who has a tendency to overdo it sometimes, and it's good to see him rein it in and do something with depth and nuance.
Linklater comes at the story from a risky angle. It's no secret that much of the town loved Bernie Tiede, and some people believed that he didn't commit the murder, even though he confessed. The movie almost comes off as an argument that he wasn't such a bad guy after all, even if he did shoot an old woman (played awesomely by Shirley MacLaine) in the back four times and then stuff her in a garage freezer.
Bernie was a mortician, and we first see him meticulously prepping a corpse for burial in front of a group of students. There's something mildly disturbing about how much he seems to be enjoying himself as he glues shut a dead man's eyelids and picks stray hairs from the man's face. The scene makes Bernie seem almost joyfully callous as he clips the dead guy's nails. (We actually see him clipping the still-alive Marjorie's nails later, and his demeanor is the same.)
Bernie starts courting the affluent Marjorie, bringing her snacks and bubble-bath soap after her husband's funeral. They become friends, start going to local events together, and eventually start traveling. The film hints that there may have been a romantic relationship, even though many believed Bernie was gay.
There's sweetness to their friendship at first, but it quickly turns ugly once Marjorie starts badgering Bernie with jealousy-tinged rage. This leads to the murder scene—one of the more brilliantly depicted murders I've seen in a film. Only Bernie Tiede knows what was going through his mind at the moment he killed Marjorie, but Linklater's version of the event is stunning and tragic.
That tragic moment is followed by a raucous rendition of "Seventy-six Trombones," with Black doing a jaunty song and dance in full Music Man regalia. Yep, Bernie killed his lady friend and then went straight to a play rehearsal. Linklater directs this moment as joyously detached; Bernie doesn't fudge the lyrics or miss any steps. He has just committed murder, and he's totally in control of his faculties.
And let it be said that Black needs to star in The Music Man on Broadway one of these days. The dude nails it!
Is Bernie's behavior monstrous? Of course it is; the man is a confessed murderer. Yet many of the townspeople loved him and still couldn't believe he did it. Linklater actually uses some of Bernie's friends in staged interviews, and some of them defend him while condemning Marjorie. ("There are people in this town who would've shot her for five dollars!")
Black captures the twisted nature of Bernie eloquently, especially in the immediate aftermath of the murder and the confession scene. Black somehow makes Bernie grotesque, creepy, genuine and funny, all at the same time. I can't imagine another actor playing this part better.
Matthew McConaughey, another Linklater veteran, gets some good laughs as Danny Buck, the district attorney who had the frustrating task of prosecuting a cold-hearted killer who is loved by everyone. Like Black, McConaughey does a nice job of maintaining a level of sensibility while injecting effortless humor.
I gave Black's new Tenacious D album, Rize of the Fenix, a listen before watching the film. I admit that I cracked up a few times while watching Black sing gospel tunes in the car or in front of a church congregation in Bernie, just after hearing him rapturously sing every obscenity in the book on Fenix. I can't help but hear a little bit of the D's JB coming through during Bernie's rendition of "Love Lifted Me." I half expected him to punctuate the hymn with a "fuck yeah!"
Bernie is a triumph for Black and Linklater. Both men have done their best work while together, and I certainly hope this isn't the last time they share a set.