Richard Linklater's Delightful Murder Story: Bernie

Bernie opens with Jack Black giving a direct presentation on the art of mortuary sciences to the viewer. To me, it's Richard Linklater's greatest film, and I'm a real pro-Slackers guy. Unfortunately, I think most viewers look at the cover or the television ads and assume it's just another quick Jack Black comedy like Shallow Hal or some junk. But it's really a pretty terrific, true life crime story, along the lines of Bully, Alpha DogHeavenly Creatures, Bling Ring, Wolf of Wall Street or Auto Focus. Those are all really good movies, by the way; and if you wrote any of 'em off without seeing them, I suggest you treat yourself to a rental.
Bernie's a film that takes place in East Texas and is as much about the area as it is Bernie Tiede or the murder he committed. You see, Bernie's just so popular in his small, friendly, church-going community; that when it comes out that he's murdered the town's grande dame, played meanly by Shirley MacLaine, and stuffed her body in the freezer while continuing to live in her house and spend her money for almost a year, they're all still behind him. The local preacher gives a sermon saying how important it is for everyone to show that both God "and this congregation" still support him. When the district attorney Matthew McConaughey comes to town, everyone says "I sure hope I get on that jury" to acquit him.

It's a great blend of dark comedy and tragedy because it always clings so tightly to the reality of the situation. It's also got this great faux documentary thing going on, where real local townspeople play themselves in direct interview segments, like a Greek chorus pulled out of Errol Morris's Vernon, Fl, but just a little more genteel and middle class. The film's also broken up into chapters with title cards like "Is Bernie Gay?" things could have easily fall into cheap jokes and Hollywood comedy, which is actually exactly the kind of film I assumed this was until I actually watched it; but it's all so much more authentic and engrossing.
The film was released on DVD and blu-ray in August 2012 by Millennium Entertainment. As a sort of mainstream movie that never really played large, and being a couple years old, it's become one of those great cheap blu-rays that you can usually find for five to seven dollars. I've got both the DVD and the blu-ray here, so let's have a look.
Millennium's DVD on top, and their blu-ray on the bottom.
As a concurrent release of a brand new film, the DVD and blu-ray transfers are naturally identical at their root (except, the DVD looks a bit darker, doesn't it?), with the DVD just suffering from its inescapable standard def compression. Both are slightly letterboxed to 1.85:1 with a warm and natural look. Bernie was shot digitally, so I imagine this is as faithful to the original theatrical presentation as you could ask for.

The DVD gives you the option of Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 and a 5.1 mix, with optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles. The blu-ray has a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD audio track and the same set of subs.
Extras are a little slim, but quite good. There are three featurettes: one on the making of the film, which interviews everybody from Linklatter and Black to some of the dancers he worked with in the theater company scenes. It's a pretty traditional 'making of,' but well done and satisfying, and not packed with clips. Then the second one's about the true crime incident the film's based on, largely centered around an interview with the screenwriter. It's pretty fascinating if you've just watched the film, and shows us some real footage of the DA, who unsurprisingly looks nothing like McConaughey. Linklater tells us how he'd been prepping the film for over ten years and had gone to the original trials. Third, there's one on the "Gossips," meaning the first person interview subjects of the film (fun fact: one of them is McConaughey's mom). It's a really fun collection of audition footage and interview clips with the mix of real locals and actors seen in the film. From the outside, these might look like the promotional featurettes you're inclined to skip; but they're actually quite good and worth the watch, especially the True Story one.

There's also a nice collection of not completely color corrected deleted scenes. There's some nice little moments, which were probably right to be cut, but still enhance the experience watching them separately. There's also a lot more of a musical performance by Black that you only saw a small snip of in the film. Finally, there's several bonus trailers that auto-play when you load the disc; but I was pleasantly surprised to spot the Bernie trailer listed among them if you select Previews from the menu screen. All of these extras are included on both the DVD and blu.
This is a great, underrated release of a great underrated film. I definitely recommend adding the blu-ray to your collection, especially since it's so cheap. And if you're still not HD capable, the DVD's a fine standard def alternative that can be had even cheaper.

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