Jack Black Can Act! Who Knew?
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
For those who hate Jack Black, and those who love him, the new film Bernie, from director Richard Linklater may just be the film that brings both camps together. Black stars as the title character Bernie Tiede, an assistant mortician in the small East Texas town of Carthage, and a man who is loved by the community for his charity, his empathy for those who have just lost a close relative, and his ability to sing any song by request at church.
Oh, and he also killed an old woman named Marjorie Nugent (played fiercely by Shirley MacLaine) and hid her body in a freezer for several months without anyone knowing about it.
Oh, and this is all based on a true story.
Sounds quite creepy, right? Well, in fact the opposite is true, as Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth decided to make this true story more of a comedy than drama. In fact, I wouldn't even call it dark comedy, but rather a lighthearted documentary-like film, with elements of a crime thriller interspersed throughout. It's been done before, yes, but never (at least in recent years) with a more capable actor than Black in a role that quite frankly could have been acted completely wrong.
Black plays Bernie with just the right level of ambiguity: we don't know if he is truly psychotic or if he did genuinely have a moment where he just lost it; we don't know (though it's certainly speculated by the townsfolk) whether or not Bernie is gay; and perhaps the biggest question, at least for me, is that we don't know what Bernie's true motivations were for all of the donations he made to the town of Carthage. Was it all an elaborate plan to get people to like him? Was he truly that good? We'll never know. What remains by the time the credits role, is the certainty that Black has just played the role of his career. He's never over-the-top, nor is he too reserved. He just embodies this character and plays him without fear (Black actually met with the real-life Bernie and studied his mannerisms to make sure he played the part right).
At odds with Bernie's goodness is Marjorie, the mean old curmudgeon hated by all of Carthage. MacLaine is so viciously evil in her portrayal of Marjorie that it's hard to sympathize with her at all. At about the time everyone finds out what's happened to her in the film, we, too, begin to justify Bernie's actions. Bernie and Marjorie's scenes together at first feel like 'the start of a beautiful friendship', then as the months and years go by, become strangely intimate and finally, just before Marjorie's death, quite hard to watch. We see how tortured and conflicted Bernie is as he tries to remain the lovable man he's always been, despite having the thankless job of being Marjorie's caregiver.
Real-life Carthage residents provide commentary on the events that unfolded, one woman explaining that some of the locals would have shot Marjorie for five dollars, and others still in disbelief that Bernie actually murdered her. The character in the film apparently immune to Bernie's charms, and really the only voice of reason, is Danny Buck Davidson (played by Matthew McConaughey) the district attorney of Carthage. He's the audience's window into a town that eerily feels like a cult when the subject of Bernie comes up. He's a part of the town, but he's the outsider looking in, outnumbered and having to react quickly if he wants to successfully convict Bernie.
All of these elements add to the fun that is Bernie. Linklater establishes a tone that neither makes fun of the events that transpired, nor takes itself too seriously. I walked out of the film wondering if Bernie, or at least Black's portrayal of Bernie, cast a spell over me as well, considering that despite having seen him do it in the film, I didn't want to believe that he shot Marjorie in cold blood. If there's one thing Linklater's successful with in Bernie, it's creating reasonable doubt in his audience despite explicitly showing us the crime.
Black's performance is one that I doubt will be considered come awards season, but nonetheless one that should be nominated in a best actor category. Is it a serious role? No. Is it one that defies all odds and overcomes adversity? No.
But it is one that shows us that just like Bernie, there's more to Jack Black than meets the eye.