Going into this, I had pretty low expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I like Black, but whenever he does a film by himself it generally ends up as an unfunny mess, and the little remaining respect I have for the man gets further eroded. So imagine my surprise when Bernie not only turned out to be good, but very good, and it sees Black give arguably a career-best performance.
Black plays the title character, Bernie Tiede, who lives and works in the quiet Texan town of Carthage. He is the local mortician and an absolute pillar of the community – every single resident loves him. He begins to grow close to the newly widowed Marjorie Nugent (MacLaine), who everybody loathes. But Bernie sees the good in her (he is just that compassionate) and eventually their closeness develops into something more. (Quick note, if you know nothing about this film or haven’t seen the trailer, a mild spoiler is approaching). Over time, Majorie’s constant nagging and bad attitude begin to grate on poor Bernie and eventually he cracks and shoots the poor old dame. Bernie panics and hides the body before carrying on as if nothing has happened; given the rest of the town's dislike of her, nobody really pays much notice to Marjorie's sudden disappearance and it is only nosey accountant Lloyd Hornbuckle (Robichaux) and overly-ambitious DA Danny Buck (McConaughey) who begin to uncover the truth.
It is a story that seems ridiculous, yet this is a story based on true events; in fact, the script was co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, who originally wrote the article in Texas Monthly detailing the events. Linklater is in charge behind the camera and he manages to get superb performances from MacLaine and McConaughey, but it is Black who really steals the show with a wonderfully subtle performance that bears almost no resemblance to some of his ridiculously over-the-top roles. From the first scene, where Black is giving a class on how to perfectly prepare a dead body for a funeral, he is wonderful.
The film is shot in a faux documentary style and a lot of laughs come from the interviews with the townspeople, though I did think there was almost too much of them and not enough of Bernie. It is not a style I generally like and was initially put off, but you just cannot help but be won over by Bernie and the folk of Carthage.
Bernie has actually been floating around since 2011, when it first appeared on the festival circuit, and you do have to wonder why it has taken so long to surface in UK cinemas. Whatever the reason, this is superbly put together and Black has never been better.