Surprises are memorable, whether they are happy ones or not. Richard Linklater's Bernie presents a story of murder so straightforward that there are no surprises whatsoever, but he does confound our expectations when it comes to the actors.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is an effeminate assistant funeral director who is beloved in the small town of Carthage, Texas. He is a magnanimous man, forever buying people gifts even though he has almost no money himself, singing in the local church choir, and providing great comfort and emotional stability to the many elderly widows he meets during the course of his job. One day the wealthy and feared Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) needs his services, and soon the mean old bat turns Bernie into her personal valet. While her neediness begins to impinge on his own life, he's too nice to rebel; besides, he doesn't want to pass up all the monetary advantages of being Marjorie's only friend. But eventually he does something drastic in order to get out from under this woman's thumb, which leads tenacious, camera-loving District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) to dig up the truth regarding Bernie's crime.
The whole movie rests primarily on the shoulders of Black, whom Linklater turned into a bankable star with School of Rock -- a film that utilized Black's verbally nimble, high-energy likability in ways no other picture quite has. This time, however, Black tries something new. He gives Bernie a high Texas twang that manages to be soothingly gentle while also betraying an abundance of repressed feelings. The character of Bernie fits Black perfectly, allowing him to bring shades of darkness and sadness we haven't seen from him before to his trademark emphatic extroversion. It's the kind of work that announces he's ready and able to handle much more challenging fare than most of us have come to expect from him.
It's a superb performance, but it's far from the only one. McConaughey, another actor whom Linklater traditionally gets the best from, shines by curdling his own abundant charm into an unctuous, self-satisfied ambition -- which makes it even more dramatic that his character is the moral center of the story. In addition to his fine work, MacLaine makes an impression with very little screen time. Marjorie is purposefully detestable from the get-go; her Scrooge-like mentality is highlighted at every opportunity, most humorously when she clutches her purse as a local religious figure tells a group of women he's looking for donations. MacLaine plays that moment so beautifully that you can tell the character's distrust and fear are innate, possibly even subconscious.
Sadly, though the actors are uniformly excellent, the screenplay by Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth (who wrote the magazine article about the real-life case the movie is based on), doesn't build any suspense. We learn early on what Bernie does, and while that allows Linklater to focus on the nuances his actors bring to their characters, such a decision deadens the dramatic impact of the storytelling. The actors are so good we understand the characters pretty much from the first frame, and that makes the fact that we know how it turns out much more problematic. After the first 30 minutes, there is no sense of discovery -- we're just waiting for the inevitable confrontation between Bernie and Buck to see how the actors play it.
Linklater avoids any accusation of exploiting a real murder -- the picture's ambitions are far too small to think that he intended this to be a blockbuster. It has the intimacy and professional quality of a fine made-for-HBO movie, which shouldn't be taken as an insult. It's absolutely worth seeing for Black's skillful work, but if only the filmmaker had added some tension, more people would be interested in seeing such a genuinely great performance.