It’s safe to say that Richard Linklater knows Jack Black more than most directors.
In School Of Rock, the indie godhead sussed out how to make Black funny over a full film, a rarity for an actor best enjoyed in small doses.
Back with Black for a true-crime curio that mixes modes – comedy, drama, reportage – to pleasing effect, Linklater has delivered something also unheard of: a film where Black is the best thing on show.
Showing rare nuance as Bernie Tiede, a Methodist mortician loved by the people of Carthage, Texas, Black cannily re-purposes his attention-seeking unctuousness to match Bernie’s desire to be liked.
When he moves in with a toxic old widow, Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), it’s as if he needs to prove just how sweet and likeable he is. If even she likes him, who wouldn’t?
But maybe his motives are murky: eventually, he riddles her with bullets. Did Marj nag Bernie over the edge? Was he always up to no good?
Black’s slippery surface offers ambiguities and Linklater, riffing on an article by co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, goes beyond that by deploying a Carthage chorus (real folks and actors) to probe Bernie’s enigmas in talking-heads mode.
Semi-comically but without parody, this docu-drama conceit teases at themes of community and corruption, fact and fiction, faith and truth.
And, while it also loosens the narrative grip, it’s a daring conceit that allows us to meet some larger-than-life characters.
With so much going on, some things get lost: MacLaine lacks the air needed to make Marjorie more than a caricature, and we’re left wondering what actually happened.
But it’s easy to overlook niggles when your attention’s being distracted by Matthew McConaughey chewing scenery as a DA .
And then there’s Jack, good enough to suggest he could’ve dug deeper, which results in something unheard of: a film that could’ve used more, not less of Mr Black.
Bouncing between Black’s restrained appeal and colourful talking heads, this off-piste murder yarn at times frustrates but frequently fascinates. More proof of Linklater’s diversity and acumen.