Dir. Richard Linklater
(2012, PG-13, 99 minutes)

Bernie is a complex story about a simple crime. It’s inspired by the real case of Bernie Tiede, a funeral director in the East Texas town of Carthage, who befriended an elderly widow, murdered her, and confessed to the crime, in spite of which he probably came closer to acquittal than anyone reasonably should have.

What makes the film uniquely interesting is the way it frames the story as a mockumentary of sorts. Director/co-writer Richard Linklater uses talking-head “interviews” with the residents of Carthage – fictional or fictionalized characters, but many of them played by actual townspeople. They give us not only a perspective on the story but a sense of the community, which is tight-knit, prone to gossip, and loyal to its own. The relationships and reputations we learn of from these Carthage residents provide the context that lets us better understand the crime and its aftermath.

Linklater highlights the absurdity of the case and its players, but he is never belittling. He maintains a tricky balance, allowing our sympathies to shift between the characters, never declaring a hero or a villain but letting human nuances come through; this is comedy but not caricature.

Jack Black is known for his flamboyant comic persona (including in his last collaboration with Linklater, School of Rock), and his performance as Bernie plays into that; with his big smile and clean-cut, cherubic appearance, he sticks out like a sore thumb, an oddity, and we look for evidence of some darker, sinister purpose, but we don’t find one, because Black’s performance also emphasizes Bernie’s abject sincerity. Here is a man who seems almost unnaturally pleasant, overly generous, but what you see is what you get, and the crime, violent as it is, has the effect of making him seem more human, not less.

Shirley MacLaine plays his victim, Marjorie, and the amount of abuse he takes from her before snapping is a testament to his patience, but although MacLaine plays her as an insufferable bully, she gives her shadings of loneliness and mistrust; her domineering behavior seems rooted in an expectation that she will be abandoned by anyone who cares about her, so the closer Bernie gets, the worse she treats him, as if testing the limits of his affection.

Matthew McConaughey plays a blowhard prosecutor, who seems almost like a villain until you remember that he’s essentially on the right side. He is befuddled about why Bernie’s neighbors would rally around an admitted murderer, and I was too, even though I, like them, found myself almost wanting him to go free. Here is a film to invite such moral ambivalence.

Is murder always a crime? Of course, it’s always a crime. But the criminal justice system can’t always account for the peculiarities of human nature, or human sympathy.