Maybe you won’t like the movie, a richly worked-out experiment in overlapping forms of filmic consciousness: reality, fiction, ironic humor, and commonplace tragedy. But it’s unlikely anyone could dismiss Jack Black’s revelation of a performance as a beloved “confirmed bachelor” who befriends the town crab and suddenly murders her. We’re used to seeing him as the pop-eyed rock ’n’ roll braggart or as the pouty loser, but it’s sheer delight to watch him unctuously glide between modes here: sashaying, mugging, song-and-dancing, and playing self-horrified in the title role of this Southern tale of the breaking point of small-town community graciousness. You could argue that Shirley MacLaine’s nuanced role as the town shrew is more skillfully modulated, but Black steals this film from a whole host of great performers (including Matthew McConaughey) in one scene alone: playing Professor Harold Hill in a tour-de-force re-creation of a community-theater production of The Music Man. It’s dazzling surreality.
Bernie moves with smooth confidence but keeps introducing us to visual surprises and witty juxtapositions, too. The editing is much braver than anything director Richard Linklater has ever achieved before, even in his animated art films like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Linklater seems to be working out a cinematic math formula here, testing to see just how much reality his movie will hold before it becomes overloaded. (It never does.) This neatly subverts the usual paths that movie narration takes — this film is beyond tricky; it’s a magic act that works even when you know how it’s done.
It doesn’t really give us much of a conclusion. But if you can get over the fizzle of disappointment at the end, you realize that’s the point of the story: It documents un-knowability. Like Picnic at Hanging Rock, we end up admiring the unresolved. At one point, Bernie asks a lunch partner if it’s possible to do something you know is wrong while you are watching yourself do it. In reality, this film might have been merely improbable were it not for Black, who proves so convincing as an enigma.