"Bernie" wears as many hats as a Texas cowboy. Somehow, and simultaneously, Richard Linklater's latest is a genuinely surprising confidence game, a homey slice of Southern life, and an eccentric black comedy of small-town manners. The most apt description is far simpler, though: "Bernie" is one of the best films of the year.
Few directors avoid run-of-the-mill as assiduously as Linklater, and from the first moments — featuring the finest performance by a dead body since the opening credits of "The Big Chill" — it's clear that "Bernie" will be no exception. Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a kindly East Texas undertaker, is lecturing on the finer points of mortuary science. He sculpts the nails, glues together the eyelids, makes sure no snaggletooth will sneak out of the mouth to shock the bereaved. "You cannot have grief tragically becoming comedy," he cautions.
For funeral directors, that's surely useful advice. Luckily, Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, who adapted the film from the latter's 1998 Texas Monthly feature "Midnight in the Garden of East Texas," take no heed. In a macabre, true-life tale of greed, psychological abuse, and murder, they find generosity, civic pride, and Southern hospitality, without ever allowing one side to steal away with the other. In an ingenious move, they've made Hollandsworth's reporter the film's silent, invisible narrator, piecing together interviews with the town's actual residents as though on the trail of a scoop. Some critics have misleadingly referred to these moments as "mockumentary," but there's no mocking in them: their humor is as coarse as their syntax, as languid as their drawl. (If you've never heard anyone say, "her nose was so high, she'd drown in a rainstorm," you'll hear it here first.)
If Carthage's warm, funny citizenry is the film's Greek chorus, then Bernie should be its pinewoods Oedipus, moving inexorably toward his fate. But he's not, or at least not in the way I expected. Black, never better, is part of the surprise. Too often, filmmakers turn "Jack Black" into a flat character and then ask the actor to play a high-volume, low-impact version of himself (see: "Nacho Libre," "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny," and, at the far end of tastelessness, "Shallow Hal"). But as in "High Fidelity," "School of Rock" and "Margot at the Wedding," "Bernie" twists and tempers his on-screen persona — likable but a little schlubby, with an ear for music and a talent for comic frustration — and uses it to fashion a convincing and recognizably troubled soul. Here the songs are gospel, the frustration shaded by darker implications; even Black's comedy is affable and naturalistic rather than goofy or gregarious.
With Black's help Bernie becomes inscrutable enough for the film to lay a trap with gifts and salesmanship, and it wasn't until the last act that I realized I was the one who sprung it. Bernie's strange friendship with millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) shifts slowly and imperceptibly, until suddenly (and gleefully) you notice the con was a triple game, and you're the one holding the bag.
"Bernie," already available for purchase on iTunes ($14.99), is out today on DVD/Blu-ray and for rental on Amazon Video ($3.99).