Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Cinema File #50: "Bernie" Review

A movie with Jack Black in it that doesn't make me want to gouge my eyes out? I'm skeptical, but let's see what Bernie has to offer...

Available on Netflix streaming, Bernie is the true story of a man so beloved by his hometown that when he murders a woman in cold blood, no one can quite bring themselves to condemn him. The story is presented as a sort of hybrid documentary - dramatization, with a scripted retelling interspersed with interviews from actual citizens of Carthage Texas recounting their memories of the case and their feelings concerning the now imprisoned Bernie Teade, which are pretty much to a person glowingly positive despite his confession and conviction. If I had one complaint about the execution of the film itself, and it is a minor one, it is that this very unique way of telling this story is a bit disorienting, and I think I would have much preferred either a straight documentary, or a straight dramatic interpretation.

I never thought I would ever say the words "Jack Black is amazing in this movie" in that particular order post Gulliver's Travels, but this truly is the best you've seen him in a long time. More than that, this is probably the first time I've ever seen Black in a role where he was playing someone other than thinly veiled Jack Black, meaning this is the only movie I've ever seen him in where it doesn't hinge on whether or not that crazy, in your face persona fits the tone. Here, he slips seamlessly into the shoes of a very complex character who despite his murderous act and subsequent abuse of his victim's bank account, seems to have genuine affection for the people around him so much so that you can't help but love him as the people of Carthage do even after he pulls the trigger.

Because Bernie is based on a real case, the tenor of the dramatic portions is a bit disturbing, not because of the subject matter itself, but because the movie seems to take every opportunity to make you see this character through the same rose colored glasses as the people around him who forgave him so quickly. Bernie is made so sympathetic, and his victim so outrageously unsympathetic, that you are clearly meant to root for him even though there is really very little ambiguity in what he did. Had he simply killed her in a moment of passion, then turned himself in and accepted the consequences of his actions as the repentant Christian he claims to be, I may even be able to feel for him a bit more, but instead he hides what he did for months while he raids the account (admittedly to fund various charities and projects in his town which no doubt contributed to their high opinion of him).

The Prosecutor played by Matthew McConaughey is painted as a corrupt, snarling bad guy, obsessed with politics and perceived by many to be only going after Bernie for the publicity and to get another notch on his belt, and while there are a lot of prosecutors like that in the real world and precious few depictions of unscrupulous DAs in the media landscape of stalwart Law and Order crime fighters, this movie goes out of its way to try and make you forget the fact that, at least in this case, he's actually right. Again, if this was a completely fictional story, a sympathetic murderer would be a fine fit for a dark comedy satire of how we view true crime and criminals, but to tell this "true story" and not tell the side of the person who was shot in the back four times, in favor of showing us what a nice guy this Bernie fellow was to all these other people he didn't shoot, just feels...wrong. And not in a good way.

It is a testament to how well made this film is that you can accept it long enough for the events to play out. The distaste I am expressing now is only in retrospect, and as you watch the movie, its hard not to be immersed in its fractured point of view. Though its implications may be grim and even insulting to those personally affected by the case, you'd never know it from watching the movie, which does such a good job of pushing you to its own conclusions that Bernie's slow march into prison is a legitimately somber moment, even though he entirely deserves it.

Definitely check this one out if you get the chance. Again, it's on Netflix streaming, and if it's one of the ones you pass by every time you scan through either because it's Jack Black or because it just doesn't seem like the kind of movie that might appeal to you, you might be surprised. See if this cold blooded murderer doesn't just warm your heart.

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