Gifted—cursed?—with a definitive role nearly a decade ago, Jack Black always seems eager to school us in the joys of rock, often to the detriment of his wider range. (Have another look at his deranged wingnut in 1992’s Bob Roberts.) Now, reteaming with his School of Rock director, Richard Linklater, Black has finally found a way to modulate his appeal, this time as equally impassioned real-life Texas funeral director and convicted murderer Bernie Tiede. He’s ever ready to launch himself, full-voiced, into a gospel hymn—or the service of a grieving widow, his intentions fascinatingly vague.
Bernie, a triumph of small-scale, regional pulp, doesn’t quite operate as a menacing thriller, nor as a one-note yokel comedy. Rather, it plays like a Texas tall tale with an unusually warm heart: Linklater shepherds in a huge number of supporting players to convey his story through mock interviews, their colorful language and decent impulses creating a pepper-flecked chili of Americana. (Even more than Dazed and Confused, this is Linklater’s tribute to his home state—a sizable nation that gets its own saucy breakdown by region.)
The coalescing mystery involves Black’s fey but beloved mortician, a massive personality in a tiny town, and sour Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine, impressively fierce), a tightfisted, wealthy loner who melts at the man’s valet-like attention. They start going on trips abroad; Bernie moves in with her and buys a plane for his personal enjoyment. Is he just being nice to her for the money? Hard to say.
Taking its time with a flavorful middle section, the movie builds into a true-crime treat; some will think of Fargo (apt, but this movie is gentler), others, the documentaries of Werner Herzog. As if these pleasures weren’t enough, Matthew McConaughey finally locates his perfect métier as the town’s Fordian skeptic, a district attorney who smells a rat.
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