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September 11, 2012


On DVD/Blu-ray – Review: Bernie (2012)


Bernie is a unique blend of drama, true crime reenactment, documentary, and mockumentary. That word “unique” gets tossed around pretty freely anymore, but if any movie this year qualifies, Bernie is it. It’s also one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

I’ve had a couple of discussions recently about which movies are hard to write about and why. My experience has been that the difficulty rating for criticism follows the same bell curve that describes the movies themselves. Most movies are fairly easy to review. We parse what works, what doesn’t, and why the former outweighs the latter or vice versa. The great movies are tough because there’s so much to say, so much that works and so little that doesn’t, and because they challenge us to do justice to them in our responses. Extraordinarily bad movies are the worst, at least for me, because I can find nothing of interest in them to write about (an easily resolved problem: ignore them).

One of my discussion points was that once you’re into the very good to great range, the more difficult the movie is to comprehend, the easier it is to write about it, because complications and ambiguities guide analysis. It’s counter-intuitive, but it’s much more challenging to review movies that make sense and are easy to follow and understand. Bernie has a daring formal structure but a simple plot and the people in it say what they mean. Its excellence is in the accumulation of small details of performance and editing, and a surprising delicacy of touch.

The true crime was a 1996 murder in a small town in east Texas, for which Bernie Tiede is currently serving a life sentence. Normally you’d expect a true crime movie to be about the criminal act and the investigation, but this one isn’t. That part of the story is covered, yes, but it isn’t the focus. The movie takes Bernie’s POV and accepts his version of what happened, most pertinently that the killing wasn’t premeditated, but it isn’t really interested in advocacy either.

It’s interested in understanding what happened next. Why did- does- Bernie inspire such impassioned forgiveness from his friends? A very large circle of very devoted friends. That’s the heart of the matter, and it depends on two more questions: What kind of person is he? What’s it like to live in a small town where most of the people who live there are there because they haven’t moved away? Bernie is a character study of a man and a community.

Jack Black captures the extravagantly extroverted Bernie through understatement. Now that’s definitely not what you’d expect, from the actor or for the character, and it succeeds brilliantly. Terrific as it is, the performance is matched by the documentary/mockumentary pieces of the storytelling. There are townspeople in the cast alongside familiar Hollywood faces, there are mockumentary interviews with characters played by professional actors, and there are documentary interviews with townspeople. It isn’t revealed who’s who or what’s what until the end credits, and the presentation is seamless.

It’s very lively and often laugh-out-loud funny. And sometimes terribly funny and terribly sad at the same time, especially toward the end. There’s enough of the sordid and the sensational in the real life facts to make a tabloid cover story, yet the movie isn’t sordid and it downplays the sensational aspects to the vanishing point. Paradoxically, it’s the laughter that lets us take the true story seriously.

The extras are a few making-of short features in addition to the usual deleted scenes and trailers.

New releases this week: Lola Versus, Snow White and the Huntsman, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, Your Sister’s Sister

…and last week: The Five Year Engagement, Safe

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Sep 17 2012

    post updated

  2. Michelle
    Sep 17 2012

    Great review, Helen. I find it very difficult to wrap words around why I love this movie so much, and you do a great job here!

    I love so much about it, but I think my favorite things are the talking head interviews, which are so precious and funny. I think Jack Black deserves a nod, but who knows how that will go. It’s early.

    Fun fact: my sister-in-law had lunch with Jack Black once–when she was an extra in Shallow Hal. :)

  3. Miriam
    Sep 18 2012

    It is often difficult to articulate why you like something, especially when it’s not from the usual mold. Bernie takes all those disparate movie elements you mention and somehow keeps them all in balance. As a viewer, though, I felt pleasurably off-balance most of the time because the film kept surprising me.

    The only point where I thought it faltered was the actual trial scenes. The lawyers seemed to have crossed to the wrong side of the exaggeration/caricature line. Wouldn’t you think Bernie would have an appeal for lawyer incompetence based on what we see? I wish they had told us about it without going into the courtroom since there wasn’t enough time to treat the trial effectively. How did those scenes strike you?

  4. Sep 18 2012

    Wow, great review! I strayed away from reviewing this because I tend to focus on plot summery and story structure (whether good or bad) in my film reviews but Bernie exhumes so much goodness and it so terrifically good-natured that, like Helen mentioned in her review, it’s damn-near impossible to write a coherent and intelligent review.

    Bravo for that Helen, you kept it (relatively) short and sweet! :O)

  5. Sep 22 2012

    It’s cool to see so much love for BERNIE.

    @Michelle: I loved the interview segment early on with the man in the diner explaining Texas and its demographics, illustrated by the animated map.

    @Miriam: Bernie on the stand was the movie’s one real weak point. The physical setting- small, shabby, ill-lit courtroom- was realistic but if the dramatization was a fair representation of Bernie’s lawyer’s trial skills, he doesn’t deserve his local reputation. On the whole it didn’t bother me too much but I think that’s mostly because I long ago gave up on expecting anything good from courtroom scenes.

  6. Michelle
    Sep 22 2012

    Helen–Yes, that was hilarious. :)