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Call it what you will: mockumentary, docu-drama, quasi-reality. Whatever the nomenclature there is little doubt that the documentary-style has taken the film industry by storm. Starting perhaps with imitation-documentaries like This is Spinal Tap, the debut of Cops and subsequent reality TV avalanche have conditioned audiences to interpret the style. Seminal films like The Blair Witch Project and television shows like The Office have proven that the formula is enduring.
There are variations within the genre. Films like Borat present themselves as ordinary documentaries, filmed by crews over extended periods of time and carefully edited together to tell the story. Found footage stories like Cloverfield and Snow On Da Bluff carefully construct narratives that unfold in chronological order through the lens of a single hand held.
Some filmmakers just throw documentary styles at the wall to see what sticks. Chronicle absurdly demands the audience to reconcile how some unnamed person found snippets of footage from dozens of mobile phones, TV news outlets and security cameras and edited them all together.
Bernie takes a somewhat fresh approach, a “look back” at a significant event through the eyes of the local community. Interviews with actors in character combine with accounts by authentic east-Texas locals. These charming bits blend with polished, cinematic re-enactments of the events to create a semi-documentary that is not unnecessarily shaky, grainy or irritating.
The film tells the story of a too-jolly-to-be-true mortician in small-town Texas. His already bizarre life takes a significant turn when he becomes involved with a cold-blooded millionaire widow. The film is based on a true story. A bizarre story made more significant considering that the creators based almost the entire story off of court testimony and interviews.
The interviews are some the best parts of the film, brimming with idiom and colloquialism that will have you craving corn bread in no time. Did you know there are actually five distinct regions within Texas? Or that not all of them are full of cacti and tumbleweeds? Me neither.
Jack Black captures the spirit of the mid-American mortician with vulnerability and aplomb. A few memorable vocal numbers buoy his performance. The creators cast Shirley MacLaine perfectly in the role of the hateful widow. Even Matthew McConaughey doesn’t totally suck, possibly since he is in his comfort zone playing a native of the Lone Star State.
Director Richard Linklater‘s subtle, intellectual sensibility serves the pace of this story well. The innovation of Slacker or Waking Life isn’t bursting forth, but then again in this story it would have been a distraction. Like Dazed and Confused this movie shows that Linklater is still one of the foremost experts in the anthropology of Texas.
This film is entertaining whether or not you are familiar with the story of Bernie Tiede, but particularly if you are not. Fans of Jack Black should certainly not miss it.
It is well-established in cinema that the lines between right and wrong are blurry. In a blind and impartial justice system, an affable perpetrator or a deplorable victim should not have any effect on the consequence of a crime. Yet such an outcome seems inevitable in a trial by jury. The question Bernie asks is “are there really any lines and if so who is drawing them?”
Bernie is streaming via Netflix, Amazon and iTunes.
Here’s the trailer: