If I were to claim of Bernie, that it is Richard Linklater's best film since Before Sunset - and that is exactly what I do claim - I haven't really told you much of anything about it. "Better than the well-intentioned but dramatically arid Fast Food Nation? Better than the poundingly unnecessary remake of Bad News Bears? Better than the irritating white noise that was Me and Orson Welles? What kind of untrammeled masterpiece must we have here, then?" And yes, in that company of films (I'll cop to liking A Scanner Darkly), a film could be The Best without even necessarily having to be good, let alone very good; but Bernie, I think to be very good indeed. Because for all that Linklater has spent the last eight years losing his way, there is still the soul of one of the absolute, very best independent American filmmakers of the 1990s hiding in him, and Bernie finds him back with the same kind of material, and storytelling methods, and regional culture, that made his early films so damn great.

The film was based on a newspaper article by Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the script with Linklater; this was an account of a strange event that happened in the mid-1990s in Carthage, Texas, on the east side of the state and where, in the words of one resident (or an actor playing a resident), the Texan Southwest gives way to the Deep South. A man named Bernie Tiede, responding to an ad in the paper, arrived in town to take the job of funeral director's assistant, and immediately became one of the most well-liked members of the community, both for the tremendous care and attention he paid to the dead bodies he was charged with staging for their funerals, and the wholly kind and guileless way that he showed a genuine and pervasive interest in the lives of everyone he spoke to. He even managed to befriend Carthage's local wicked witch, the rich widow Marjorie Nugent, who took to the much younger Tiede so much that in addition to giving him nearly unlimited control over her considerable wealth, she made him the sole heir to her estate. Presumably for this reason, Tiede shot Nugent in the back, and hid her body for nine months while pour massive sums of cash into every corner of Carthage.

That "presumably" is the hedge that drives Bernie: while this was an apparently straightforward case of "ambiguously gay mortician and local theater impresario kills his sugar mama to get at her large fortune", and Tiede is presently serving a prison sentence and will not be eligible for parole for many years to come, the people of Carthage steadfastly refuse to believe he's guilty of first-degree murder. Some, despite his signed confession and his admission of culpability on the witness stand, don't even think he pulled the trigger. And that is the situation that so attracted Hollandsworth and then Linklater: in which a murderer is so absolutely beloved by a small, tight-knit community, and his victim so utterly loathed, that he couldn't possibly have killed her, and if he did, well, obviously she drove him to it, the bitch.

Thus: Bernie, a film that combines the form of a documentary (its narrative spine is a series of after-the-fact interviews with Carthage residents, several of them playing itself) with a true crime biopic, and operates under a sheen of jovial black comedy and works far better as a study of the mentality of Carthage itself than as an explication of Tiede's crime and whether or not his stated defense - that he acted in a moment of insanity and was thereafter too panicked to go to the police - is true or not. This is territory that Texas-born Linklater has been to before, of course: two of his very best early features, 1991's Slacker and 1993's Dazed and Confused are very similar slice-of-life pieces about people in Texas presented without much in the way of narrative, and while Bernie certainly has "narrative", it's not obvious until its over that this is the case: watching the film feels much more like Slacker or Waking Life, drifting from one character to another and letting them have their say and then drifting elsewhere.

That said, the film is enough of a narrative to turn Bernie Tiede into a hell of a movie character, and Linklater gives the outstanding present of this role to Jack Black, whose acting is inconsistent at best (though never less than charming), and who has rarely been better than in his previous collaboration with the director, School of Rock; and while everything is subjective and all, I don't really know that there's any room for argument that Bernie isn't the very best work of his career, terrifically bubbly and appealing, while also being a bit of a comic butt, and then at the end having to navigate powerfully weird emotional territory, where we have to both feel sorry for him and wonder, deep inside, if he's just a bullshit artist. Black doesn't nail this balance flawlessly; in particular, he can't bring himself to really foreground the possibility that Tiede actually did commit willful murder, which does sap just a bit of the film's bite (it is, on the whole, nicer than a black comedy and social satire ought to be), but in a role full of so many tightrope acts where the difference between "Bernie is a charming man" and "Bernie is a comic stereotype of a religious gladhandler and idiot" is so very thin, that even his decision to break too nice doesn't come even a little close to ruining the performance or the movie relying on it.

And anyway, without a slightly-too-generous central performance, the movie might have drifted too far the other way: Linklater himself is playing an extraordinarily subtle game with the people of Carthage, presenting them at one and the same time as being undereducated yokels and dumb rednecks, while also honoring who they are as a town and individuals. And truth be told, in all but the most forgiving moments, there's a certain "laugh at the hicks" undercurrent to much of the film's comedy. The criticism frequently levied at the Coen brothers, that they deliberately populate their worlds with people they can then act superior to, is one that undoubtedly could be applied to Bernie as well, though I would ultimately call it baseless: Linklater ends up alligning us too much to the Carthaginians, and giving them too much of their dignity back, for the urban smugness that occasionally infects the opening third of the movie to color the whole very much. But that smugness is there.

But no, on the whole, this is a sweet little comedy about death and lying that manages to say a whole lot about our capacity for self-delusion (and this is true of both the Carthaginians and the film's version of Tiede), without acting like it's doing anything other than reporting a very odd story that we might find amusing. And amusing it is, from Black's terrifically magnetic performance, to Matthew McConaughey's outstanding turn as the incredulous DA Danny Buck (like Black, he's also done some of his best work with Linklater; his performance in Dazed and Confused remains my favorite role of his career), to the endless parade of spiky, playful, wonderfully sincere interviews with Carthage residents real and otherwise (Shirley MacLaine's small role as Mrs. Nugent finds the legendary actress in good form, but it's much too limited for her to do very much with it). The whole thing is lighthearted when it could just as easily be serious or sarcastic; filled with a prickly human realness when it could be clichés and broad humor. It's imperfect, but this is the kind of imperfection that only really serves to give it more of a handmade feeling, the sort of personal element that used to be the calling card of great American independent filmmaking, and is as rare there now as anywhere else.