Small town true crime tales are often of the gothic variety, but director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the life and imprisonment of much-loved mortician Bernie Tiede is all kindness and generosity (aside from the crime itself…maybe). Bernie (Jack Black), a God-fearing Christian with a predilection for musical theater, is greatly respected throughout the small town of Carthage, Texas (“where the South begins”). He strikes up a friendship with a wealthy, elderly crank (Shirley MacLaine) whose innate cruelty eventually gets the better of him. The interesting part of the story is how Bernie goes on to squander his victim’s fortune, which almost begs the question of whether his murderous actions actually did the town a favor. Black’s portrayal of the devilish charmer is convincing and, at times, fascinating; all of Bernie’s emotions are exaggerated just enough to create a believable oddball.
The whole affair brings to mind the I-can’t-believe-it’s-real feel of last year’s Tabloid, Linklater even intersperses the narrative with interviews with the real life townsfolk that Bernie both touched and surprised. Thus the fictional narrative plays out more like a reenactment, the film’s structure like an episode of any given cable television crime program. And while the film doesn’t necessarily succeed in transcending that familiar format, its bizarre case of generosity in the face of sin is entertaining enough to earn its place on the big screen.
Bernie opens today at the Ritz Five.