Richard Linklater never ceases to push the boundaries of film and narrative structure. In his newest effort, Bernie, a real life tale of sweetness and murder burrowed in the South, Linklater takes real life interviews and interjects them into his recreation of an unexpected crime story. The horrendous act on display is an impromptu murder perpetrated by Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), a funeral home director that’s divinely effervescent. Known for his soothing soul and unmatched ability to comfort the grieving, Bernie floats around the small town of Carthage, Texas like an angel on loan from Heaven. Despite being the town’s most eligible bachelor, Bernie never romantically capitalizes on his folk hero status. That is until he comes across Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), a cold and calculated bitch who just recently lost her husband. Bernie’s angelic disposition slowly defrosts Marjorie’s frigid heart, and the two begin a romantic rendezvous under the watchful gaze of a tight-knit community. Bernie and Marjorie become an impressive duo, only to disintegrate when Marjorie’s controlling personality begins to restrict Bernie’s ability to act in the small community he loves. In a spare moment of irrationality for Bernie, he kills Marjorie.
Suddenly, cowboy district attorney Danny “Buck” Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) questions Bernie’s intentions with Marjorie, who spins Bernie’s romance into a con for lavish trips and money. Smartly, Linklater makes little effort to discern Bernie’s true intentions. There are moments where Bernie seems pure and wholly dedicated to Marjorie, but then he’s constantly partaking in gaudy excursions at no cost. After all, Bernie did submerge Marjorie into a coffin freezer for a few months while he questionably utilized her fortune to support some of Carthage’s citizens. Lending life to our titular character is Jack Black, who arguably delivers his finest performance on film. Gentle, soulful and utterly brilliant, Black makes Bernie so lovable to the point that it’s hard not to succumb to his charms, even after he laid another human being to rest. Black’s performance ensures a quality film, but Linklater fails to deliver a third act that’s actually worthwhile. We’re given an immense amount of time to understand the miraculous qualities of Bernie, but Linklater dedicates little time to the trial that ultimately landed Carthage’s saint in jail. Regardless, Bernie is a dark comedy that breezes by on Black’s performance and Linklater’s recreation of an unlikely murder that is at once a satire and a Southern tragedy.
Moving on in the wake of death is difficult. Anyone can tell you, since it’s invariably everyone’s life story, that a death in the family leaves an irrevocable void. In time, hopefully the void will shrink, but until then, even the smallest scent or facial tick can resurrect the dead. In Giorgos Lanthimos’ newest film, Alps, an organization exists solely to assist families in their grieving process. The method implemented by the group, which consists of two men and two women, is that of replication. They’ll approach a family fractured by death and offer themselves as a surrogate for the recently deceased. In one case the group’s eldest female member, Monte Rosa, played stoically by Aggeliki Papoulia, impersonates a high school girl who succumbs to death after a car accident. Donning tennis attire and a teenage girl mentality, Monte Rosa dutifully slips into an unknown family for hours at a time. It’s not Monte Rosa’s only assignment, outside of her day job, Monte Rosa also plays the dead wife (or girlfriend) of another man. Even though Monte Rosa shares duties with three other members, she represents our entry point into this bizarre, but empathetic group.
Much like his previous effort, Dogtooth, Lanthimos fills Alps with a tepid pace and explosive moments of violence and sex. Unlike in Dogtooth, Lanthimos’ effort here feels worthless. The performances are certainly dedicated to the material, but Alps fails to register a distinct point. Part of the problem exists because Lanthimos crafted a world, and characters, that are too damn opaque. How the organization exists, as well as the perceptions surrounding it, would help us understand the dynamic that bonds its four members together, especially when the group’s controlling agents are seemingly based in misogyny. Unfortunately, the group’s interactions feel derivative and pointless, leaving us little help in substantiating Lanthimos’ point on the grieving process or the commerciality of death. There are certainly intermittent moments of heartbreak and genius in Alps. Whether it’s Monte Rosa hugging a grief-stricken father as if she was his daughter or one of the male Alps members absorbing the life of a dead husband to a blind woman, Lanthimos’ shows some heart. It’s just a shame that he feels it’s more necessary to shock our system more than it is to nurture it with concise thoughts and unbridled emotion. Admittedly, Alps ends in a fine manner, but that’s only because Lanthimos is heading in a decipherable direction. Otherwise, Alps is undone by an undefined world and muted emotion.