"Bernie": Black Excels in Weird, Affecting True-Crime Story

The script for Bernie was in part dictated from the stand: In a 1997 murder trial in Carthage, Texas, Bernhardt "Bernie" Tiede, a closeted ex-mortician, confessed to the shooting of his benefactress, 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, 43 years his senior. In Richard Linklater's movie version, Shirley MacLaine is Nugent, by almost all accounts a sour and unpleasant woman, clutching her purse like a floatation device. Matthew McConaughey is district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, and Jack Black plays Tiede, tackling his duties as church-choir soloist and community-theater impresario in a performance remarkable for its ability to be at once flamboyant and remote. Dangling ambiguities around the case and Black's melancholy, finicky characterization make Bernie a chafing, rock-in-the-shoe kind of movie — and I mean this as a compliment. Bernie's true-crime narrative is further complicated by its bit players, a mix of Texas actors and actual townsfolk whose voices provide a chorus of documentary-style direct-address commentary that's a lovingly compiled glossary of Texan vernacular speech. In its multivalent perspectives, Bernie is all about irreconcilable facts and foggy motives, not least the contrary demands of forgiveness written in the Bible and the stern punishment written in the law books. It is the rarest of rarities: a truly unexpected film.

 
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