Film Review – The Burial
The Burial (2023) is a throwback courtroom dramedy that doesn’t veer off too far from what we have seen before. The tropes are all there: The surprise witnesses, impassioned testimony, lawyers standing up to yell “Objection!” while the judge hammers their gavel, etc. Within the grand scheme of the genre, the stakes here feel subdued, even if the film touches upon major social issues. The central case isn’t about a murder, but about contract law – not exactly the kind of topic that draws heaps of attention. But director Maggie Betts (who cowrites with Doug Wright and Jonathan Harr) expands the scope to include themes of race, class, capitalism, and legacy. Is the basic structure a familiar one? Yes it is, but the production makes it worth taking the trip one more time.
What draws us in is the strength of the performances. Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones provide two characters that exist on opposite sides of the spectrum, yet combined create a partnership that is compelling. Jones plays Jeremiah O’Keefe, a funeral home owner in Mississippi who fears his business will be taken over by a large corporation. After a deal with the head of the company, Ray Loewen (Bill Camp) turns sour, O’Keefe decides the only way to save his family legacy is to take the corporate juggernaut to court. Things get interesting when O’Keefe learns that the county where the case will take place is made up of predominantly Black Americans. Believing that the judge and jury will likely be majority black, O’Keefe seeks out Willie Gary (Foxx), a black lawyer from Florida who isn’t afraid to flash his charisma (and money) any chance he gets.
While the case at hand involves O’Keefe’s “David vs. Goliath” attempt to save his funeral home, the writing and direction uses the set up to examine racial and economic inequalities. The editing (Jay Cassidy, Lee Percy) organizes the complex web of shady business practices to highlight how large companies exploit communities when one of their loved ones passes away. Targeting people of color and lower income households, these corporations will charge an exorbitant amount of fees for them to hold a proper burial. As Ray Loewen exclaims, the older generation/baby boomers are passing away at an accelerating rate, creating a gold mine for people like him to swoop in and grab. Loewen – and many others – exploits poor grieving families for billions of dollars. One of the highlight moments is a montage of people giving testimony of how they were taken advantage of during a heartbreaking tragedy. The way the editing rapidly moves from one person to the next amplifies how deep the problem goes.
Obviously, this is some heavy material, and Betts’ direction manages it as such. But that isn’t to say that The Burial is a dour and overly serious experience. In fact, it’s the opposite. Things get quite funny, especially when contrasting O’Keefe and Gary’s personalities. Where Tommy Lee Jones gives O’Keefe his usual dry humor mixed with vulnerable humanity, Foxx inhabits Gary as a fast talking and flashy operator. Where O’Keefe lives a simply life surrounded by close family, Gary flies around in a private jet and orders Cristal for his rival attorneys as a way to flex his influence. Some of the funniest interactions happen when Gary and his associates barge into a room and eat scenery with glee, all to the amazement of O’Keefe and his personal lawyers Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie) and Mike Allred (Alan Ruck). When it’s revealed that Loewen has hired sharp shooter Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) to be his defense attorney, that introduces gender dynamics as an additional component at play.
The actual court proceedings is where The Burial loses traction. The mechanics of calling witnesses, cross examination, breaking discoveries, and the final verdict all work as standard operating procedure. I became less interested in the ways both sides try to outmaneuver the other. Gary opts for large dramatic moments and Downes uses logic and precision. Everything just seemed to be stuck in neutral. When we leave the courtroom and see these characters exist in their everyday lives, that is where Betts and her team are at their best. It’s here where we see O’Keefe, Gary, and their respective families for who they are – their similarities and differences, and what the case means for them all. But once we get back into the main chamber, events plod along without much narrative juice. There is a key scene where Downes uses her expertise to cut down one of Gary’s witnesses. What is meant to be a dramatic shift in momentum loses its impact almost immediately.
In a movie that contains such large personalities, it would be difficult to stand out as a supporting character. And yet, that is exactly what Mamoudou Athie does as Hal Dockins. As a fresh faced lawyer, Athie plays Dockins as the most even keeled of O’Keefe’s team. His legal inexperience allows him to think outside of the box, seeing things from a unique perspective. Being black, he has life experience with discrimination and intolerance – the very things deeply rooted in the central case. Notice the subtle ways white characters treat him – calling him “boy” or acting surprised when they find out he is a lawyer. There’s no doubt that these are things Dockins has gone through before. But that doesn’t waver his determination. In fact, he is shown doing the most investigative work, rolling his sleeves up and getting into muck of endless paperwork. With his limited screen time, Athie makes the most of his opportunities. I’ve seen him in films like Patti Cake$ (2017), The Front Runner (2018), and Underwater (2020). But it wasn’t until Black Box (2020) where he truly caught my attention. Hopefully Athie’s performance here will lead him to even bigger roles.
While not necessarily bringing anything new to the table, The Burial still acts as a solid, entertaining courtroom picture. Everyone involved commits to their respective parts, generating a story that is equally emotional and humorous. Given that this is based on a true story, it even does that thing where they show the real-life counterparts during the end credits. Although it lacks any real surprises, I bought into what the narrative was offering. It is effective with what it does – sometimes, that’s good enough.