Small Town Murder Song: Bernie 

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Bernie
Directed by Richard Linklater

Opens April 27


Richard Linklater's small-town chronicle adapts the true story of Bernie Tiede, a beloved, sweet-tempered Texas mortician who became a wealthy widow's pal and factotum. Friendships with wealthy widows are rarely described as "true stories" unless something awful happened, and sure enough, 81-year-old Marjorie was found dead in a freezer (in 1997), with Bernie the rueful culprit. Bernie—the first-name-basis of the title expresses the man's popularity around town, as a personality, a community musical director, or just a sympathetic ear—relates how their relationship got to that point.

Jack Black plays Bernie, without a wink but with a mustache, opposite Shirley MacLaine as grumpy "Marge," though really Black's airy-twanged, innocent turn is at the center of the film, populated by townsfolk, both dramatized and real. Linklater, who attended the original murder trial, has always had an interest in the daisy-chaining of story-telling, and here actual Carthage, Texas, natives punctuate the drama with to-camera scenes of gossip-commentary (and look to be having a ball doing it). Grating dysfunction develops between frustrated Bernie, who's given increasing leeway with Marge's finances, and Marge, who grows more capricious and cruel, in proportion to her isolation fed by shrewish reputation and gated estate.

When the crime happens (to Bernie's own surprise), the voice of authority that emerges belongs to Matthew McConaughey, as a district attorney intent on nabbing him for the crime. But as a diner-counter convo with locals (and the interpersed commentary bits) show, the DA's is just one opinion among many. Just as Linklater goes inside the relationship betwen Bernie and Marge (and then, post-murder, his cover-up and extravagant acts of charity), he tries to convey that, far from a matter of open-and-shut cases, it's a matter unfolding in a genuine community with its own methods of digesting shock, not to mention defining justice.



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