Jack Black's True-Life Texas Crime Tale. And a Steak Burrito

Millennium Ent.
Black sizes up his victim (MacLaine).
The Dinner: Steak burrito, at Blue Water Taco Grill (515 Queen Anne Ave. N.).

The Movie: Bernie, at the Meridian (1501 Seventh Ave.).

The Screenplate: What is the official food of Texas? I say Mexican. Besides, Seattle doesn't have any dedicated, Texas-specific barbecue joints--or at least none within biking distance of downtown. That's where Richard Linklater's winningly eccentric little docudrama is opening on just one screen today, unfortunately overshadowed by SIFF. It's one of his best films, certainly his best since Before Sunset (2004), and it's based on an actual 1997 murder case in Carthage, Texas that co-writer Skip Hollandsworth made into a memorable feature the following year in Texas Monthly. In the film adaptation, Jack Black plays cheerful gay undertaker Bernie Tiede, who's introduced to the high life by a spiteful local widow (Shirley MacLaine). The unlikely duo goes on expensive trips, buys clothing and jewelry, and alarms the locals until Marjorie suddenly disappears. She's in a nursing home, says Bernie, who then begins spending her fortune on the local community, not himself. He's a killer, but not a greedy killer. Rather than eating fancy meals for one, he'd rather support the Carthage Little League team, then dine at a joint like Blue Water ...

If you need to be reminded, Richard Linklater is a true Texas indie filmmaker who broke out of the Lone Star State with Slacker and Dazed and Confused. (The latter included Matthew McConaughey among its ensemble cast; and he delivers a nice, dry supporting turn as the prosecutor in Bernie.) Jack Black came into the Linklater fold with the hit School of Rock, and the favor is returned in Bernie, which gives Black the best role of his career to date.

Bernie, as embodied by Black, is an endlessly chipper, polite, buoyant personality completely at odds with the Texas swagger we've been told is typical of that huge, diverse state. But Linklater, still based in the hippie/university/capitol city of Austin, knows better. Texas means more than George W. Bush and the Alamo. He and Hollandsworth permit Bernie to fly his freak flag high, but that means a fervent embrace of show tunes, church groups, amateur theatricals, and high culture delimited by Olive Garden and cruise ships. Bernie may be gay, but he is foremost a small-town Texan. And the Bible Belt residents of Carthage have no trouble accepting this lad who's "a little light in the loafers," in the words of one local.

This brings us to Bernie's strange structural conceit: Linklater lays out the plot in advance. There is no drama to Bernie's befriending and murdering Marjorie. But apart from the film's three main stars, Linklater employs actual townsfolk who knew the real Bernie Tiede to comment on the case. It's a bit like that groundbreaking true-crime documentary also set in Texas, Errol Morris' The Thin Blue Line (1988), with the reenactments now given the A-list Hollywood treatment. However ridiculous and petty the underlying crime and cover-up, Bernie gains force from the testimonials of actual people. We can laugh at Black's performance in Bernie (ever so slightly mincing, but never caricature; an unhappy man who only sought to please others); then our laughter is brought short by the concrete recollections of his neighbors. (Among them is Matthew McConaughey's mother, Kay.) Linklater optioned Hollandsworth's story even before Tiede went to trial, because true crime is always truly strange.

Since Taco del Mar went bankrupt and was sold to a national brand manager two years ago, Blue Water is a true local Mexican eatery with eight locations around Seattle. Four are downtown and closer to the Meridian, but the flagship is in Lower Queen Anne, where there's booze and even patio dining during the summer months. What's the most Texan item on its menu? Though Bernie Tiede isn't a stereotypical cowboy, I figured the steak burrito ($9.03 with tax and all the trimmings) would be a good choice. (Besides, there was no armadillo burrito listed.) The steak strips are cooked fresh on the grill, seared in their own grease, and they yield a nicely non-gloopy burrito when packaged with black beans, cilantro, and other standard ingredients. Is it fancy, the kind of meal Marjorie Nugent would order? No. But before he met her, shot her, and packed her body into a refrigerator, it's the kind of modest meal that would've appealed to Bernie Tiede.

Prison food isn't nearly so good, but if you stick around for the end credits to Bernie, you'll see the actual incarcerated man (considerably beefier and taller than Black), whom the good people of Carthage still remember fondly, no matter his transgressions. Likewise, and in a less unsettling manner than the movie, Blue Water leaves you with fond memories.

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