Film Review: The Burial
Director: Magge Betts
Double Nickel Entertainment
Streaming on Prime Video 10.13
When it comes to providing a clear objective and protagonist to root for, the courtroom drama is even more fool proof than the sports movie, and The Burial is a strong case in point.
Mississippi small businessman Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe (Academy Award winner Tommy Lee Jones, The Fugitive) finds himself in dire financial straits and makes the difficult choice to sell three of his family-owned funeral homes. When billionaire Ray Loewen (Bill Camp, The Queen’s Gambit) of the Loewen Group strings Jerry along for months of costly waiting, only to renege on their handshake deal, it leaves Jerry on the verge of bankruptcy—which may have been Lowen’s intention all along. It’s time to go to court, and Jerry finds hope in the form of Willie Gary (Academy Award winner Jamie Foxx, Ray) a smooth-talking, flamboyant personal injury lawyer who Hal believes is the key to winning over a predominantly Black jury in the venue chosen for the trial. This unlikely duo of Davids take on the corporate Goliath in a trial that becomes much more than the future of one small business as a corporate legacy of greed and corruption is dragged into the light.
The Burial isn’t so much a fresh take on a well-worn courtroom drama genre as it is an energetic one, and Maggie Betts (Novitiate) presents an air-tight case for why she belongs on Hollywood’s short list of sought-after directors. The Burial is a skilled and exuberantly entertaining film that treats the audience like a jury, presenting the facts while also engaging viewers’ minds and hearts, ultimately making it impossible not to rule in favor of Jerry, Willie and the movie itself. The screenplay, by Betts and Tony and Pulitzer Prize–winner Doug Wright, is smartly structured and filled with the kind of sizzling dialogue that makes or breaks this sort of a film. The feeling that race is merely being used as a crass tool to win a trial raises some interesting legal and ethical questions, though ultimately the film argues racial injustice is not only at the heart of Loewen’s history of exploiting the downtrodden but at the heart of the legal system itself.
The Burial is a star vehicle all the way, and the teaming of Foxx and Jones would have been enough to make a lesser film than this one enjoyable. These seasoned stars make us believe and care about their characters and exude an almost-peerless charisma. While Foxx is the dynamic figure propelling the movie forward with his abrasive antics, Jones is the steadying force that keeps it grounded and focused on moral and ethical principles and a stubborn insistence that right and wrong still matter. Jurnee Smollett (Lovecraft Country, Birds of Prey) elegantly matches Foxx’s energy as Mame Downes, Loewen’s lead attorney who is brought in to counter Willie’s jury appeal. “We been out-Blacked and out womaned,” Willie muses. Mamoudou Athie (Elemental) as Hal Dockins, a young associate of Jerry’s, is likable and helps keep the film centered, and Camp provides a villain that is satisfyingly slimy. Alan Ruck (Ferris Beuller’s Day Off, Succession) is the unsung hero of the ensemble. As Mike Allred, Jerry’s longtime lawyer who is none too pleased to be taking a backseat to Willie Gary, Ruck creates an unlikable yet human character who gives us a lot to think and talk about, and it’s a prime example of why the actor is a welcome presence in any film.
Formulaic yet heartfelt, The Burial executes with such precision and care that it easily ranks among the year’s most enjoyable mainstream dramas. It’s not breaking any molds, but it doesn’t need to do so. There’s far too much genuine entertainment and inspirational value at play here not to find yourself in favor of The Burial, and I’m awarding it a strong recommendation. Case closed. –Patrick Gibbs