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