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SXSW 2012: Dollhouse and Bernie

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SXSW 2012: <em>Dollhouse</em> and <em>Bernie</em>

Kirsten Sheridan’s Dollhouse has a great hook: five Irish street kids, one fancy house, 95 minutes of mayhem. The possibilities for this kind of distinctive scenario seem endless, as the kids break in, then waver between exploration and destruction, a sense of freedom heightened by the film’s use of entirely improvised dialogue. But as often happens, increasingly complicated plot machinations spoil the simple beauty of this premise, and Dollhouse gets harder to take seriously as it becomes more outlandish.

The film remains fascinating for a good portion of its running time, most acutely in scenes where it isn’t entirely clear who’s running the show: the director or the actors. The improvised dialogue and use of non-professionals allows for a liberated, impulsive feel, which Sheridan apparently finessed by sending her main players away to a house for a week, to acclimate to one another while working on improv exercises. It means that the majority of Dollhouse feels unstable but also achingly real, in sharp contrast to the scripted diversions that get shoehorned in as it progresses.

Some of the Sheridan’s structural inserts work, like a great set piece involving furniture glued to a ceiling, but the sudden appearance of a pregnancy and the reveal of who actually owns the house are really just distractions from what this movie should really be about. The significance of underprivileged kids (it’s never clear if they’re actually homeless) entering a modern temple of privilege, wrestling with their instinct to gather and their urge to destroy, has the potential for fascinating class analysis. It’s a fantasy of the have-nots getting full reign over the possessions of the haves. But by the end all this has become simple fodder for melodrama, and most of the promise of Dollhouse has evaporated.

Richard Linklater’s Slacker has an important place in SXSW lore, both as the first loud shot of the city’s independent scene and a stylistic analogue, the film’s ambling pace matching up with the relaxed tempo of the festival itself. It’s so influential that one film showing this year (titled Slacker 2011) serves as a functional remake, and its mention at the introduction to Bernie drew roars of approval. It’s also Linklater’s first foray into the magic of storytelling, the transitive properties of words and the transformative properties of language, elements which he exploits masterfully in Bernie, which may be his best work since Before Sunrise.

The focus here is the true story of Bernie Tiede, an assistant funeral director and general small-town gadabout (imagine a plump, asexual Max Fischer). This tale gets communicated partly through Jack Black’s representation of the character, partly through a Greek chorus of opinionated locals, who spurt country wisdom, nasty barbs and general Southern wit in neatly framed close-ups. Based on a 1998 piece by Skip Hollandsworth in Texas Monthly magazine, Bernie succeeds where Linklater’s many other adaptations have failed, because its use of language is perfectly attuned to its familiar depiction of place.

The place in question in rural East Texas, the woody region of the director’s youth, which gets adequately summed up via a brief animated sequence, which imagines the state carved into six discrete sectors. Linklater’s sense of this place is clearly genuine, and at times it feels like he’s using up a lifetime of overheard gems. The film exploits this specificity to tell Bernie’s difficult story, walking a fine line between mocking and openly feeling for the character, whose standing in the of the town of Carthage is threatened after he takes up with a mean widow (Shirley MacLaine). It’s a portrait that ends up seeming heartfelt, mostly thanks to Black, whose performance is surprisingly masterful, zig-zagging from comedy to gut-wrenching drama, with a few song and dance numbers thrown in.

The film also provides a showcase for Matthew McConaughey, who shines as an uptight, ornery district attorney, doing anything he can to assure reelection. He struts, Black minces, and both portray a delightful combination of caricature and real person, the kind of characters you hear about in any small town.

SXSW runs from March 9—18.