2023, R, 126 mins.
Jamie Foxx as Willie E. Gary / Tommy Lee Jones as Jeremiah O'Keefe / Alan Ruck as Mike / Jurnee Smollett as Mame / Mamoudou Athie as Hal / Pamela Reed as Annette / Bill Camp as Ray LoewenDirected by Margaret Betts / Written by Betts and Doug Wright, based on the article by Jonathan Harr
I usually don't like to throw out descriptors like they don't make 'em like this anymore when it comes to movies, but that simply came to mind for me all while watching THE BURIAL, a new fact-based period legal drama. The film is based on the true story of a slick and personal injury lawyer named Willie E. Gary, who in the mid-90s decided to represent a financially devastated Mississippi-based funeral home operator named Jeremiah O'Keefe, who wanted to sue a large Canadian funeral home company over a contractual dispute.
THE BURIAL is made up of many familiar genre pieces and certainly goes down a prescribed road in its David versus Goliath courtroom tale, but it's also an involving and - in parts - a wildly entertaining watch in the same way many of those crowd-pleasing John Grisham-based legal dramas were in the heyday of the 90s. It's ironic, because this film is based in the 90s and feels like it was made in the 90s, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.
Based on a 1999 New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr (who also wrote the book A CIVIL ACTION that - yup - was made into a John Travolta starring legal drama back in 1998), THE BURIAL introduces us to Jeremiah (a quiet and dignified Tommy Lee Jones), who's been a lifelong runner of his multi-generational funeral home in small town Mississippi. Even though he takes his job and his family business with the utmost seriousness, Jeremiah and his wife, Annette (Pamela Reed), are suffering from some major financial hardships that threaten their long-term viability. Looking to sell a few of his homes to cover some debt and keep his business thriving (so he can leave it to the next generation after he has passed), Jeremiah decides to pursue a buyer way up in the Great White North via The Lowen Group, which is run by Raymond (Bill Camp) with considerable ruthless aggression when it comes to profiting off of the dead. Their early meeting is a bit awkward, seeing as Jeremiah doesn't like this shark's corporate mentality that puts people (no pun intended) dead last, but his lawyer and friend Mike (Alan Ruck) tries to persuade his long-term client to sell to this man. After negotiating a few terms, both Jeremiah and Raymond shake hands to a deal, with only Jeremiah's other young greenhorn legal assistant, Hal (Mamoudou Athie), smelling something seriously off about the whole affair.
In turns out that Hall was right. Months go by and Jeremiah hears nothing back from The Lowen Group, which leads to concern. He decides that legal action is his only recourse to get what was promised to him, but Hal recognizes that he'll need a special kind of attorney that has just the right killer instinct to win big cases. He convinces Jeremiah - against Mike's reservations - to seek out a meeting with Willie (Jamie Foxx), a no-nonsense, fast and tough-talking, and results-driven personal injury lawyer who has won huge paydays for all his black clients. Willie is highly reluctant to take on a white client in a lawsuit that he really has no specialty in, but Hal steps up to the plate and strokes his fairly large ego into convincing him that if this case is won that he'd be the next Johnny Cochrane. Willie is convinced and decides to take his entourage of lawyers and assistants with him to help Jeremiah take on this "death care industry" crook and get what's rightfully his...and he does so right in the heart of a predominantly black country in Mississippi. He gets surprised, though, when Raymond strikes back and hires his own black attorney, Mame (Jurnee Smollett), to fight fire with fire. The game - as they say - is afoot.
The character dynamics and individual performances are what makes THE BURIAL such an old-school pleasure to watch. Both Foxx and Jones are vastly different kinds of performers that both inhabit their respective characters in their own unique ways. Foxx is allowed free reign to play up Willie's plain-spoken theatricality both in and out of the courtroom. He's big, brash, and sometimes a tad in over his head as far as this case goes, but he makes up for it in terms of sheer willpower and drive, which Jeremiah respects. That, and Willie comes to appreciate his client on a personal level as a devout family man that will do anything to secure his kids' futures (Willie started life in poverty and with nothing and had to build up his massive legal empire from scratch). Foxx has been somewhat forgettable in many recent films that have not afforded him roles of much depth or interest, but his tour de force work here in THE BURIAL reminds viewers of just what a special kind of charismatic performer he's capable of being (and what netted him the Oscar for RAY nearly twenty years ago). His Oscar winning co-star in Jones makes for an effective counter-balance. His performance is more subtle, grounded, and nuanced, which makes for a nice foil to Foxx's boisterous energy.
The intricacies of the case also become more interesting as it unfolds, especially when dirt is discovered about The Lowen Group - in a fairly desperate manner by Willie and his team - that speaks to how what was once perceived as one small business owner taking on a filthy rich CEO gets morphed into an indictment of how seedy corporations manipulate and financially cheat poor people of color to take advantage of them for massive profit (this film is set decades ago, but manages to have a very timely relevance). It's endlessly compelling to see two black lawyers representing two white men on respective sides of the ethical scale, and Smollett's turn as her distinguished and powerful lawyer is crucial here as well. She takes on The Lowen Group as a big game client and a massive personal challenge, but she also has to do so by playing into the optics of being a black defender residing over a case in a black community about an affluent and powerful white billionaire. Her give-and-take with Foxx in the courtroom provides some of the best tension to be had in THE BURIAL. Both of them are forced to concede that this case ultimately becomes one that's intertwined with race on so many intentional and unintentional levels.
Not everything in THE BURIAL is top-notch. There are many characters that populate this story, with some given the limelight, whereas others kind of appear and disappear when the screenplay doesn't know what to do with them (Pamela Reed is a superb actress, but she's really saddled here with an obligatory worrying wife role that's really underwritten). Then there are some characters like Jeremiah's decades-old lawyer and pal in Mike, who serves the purpose of providing some professional tension between himself and the menagerie of black lawyers that now surround him (obvious racial stresses aside, there's a revelation about his past that's brought to the forefront and proves damaging and distracting for the prosecution...and most audience members will be able to see it coming from mile away). The court room scenes themselves are reliably enthralling, even when they go through predictable beats, arguments between all parties present, horrible legal setbacks and then comebacks...and so forth. If you've seen one legal drama from decades past, then there's not much in THE BURIAL that will come as any surprise.
Still, I liked the overall journey that this film took me on despite its fairly anti-climatic ending. That, and director Maggie Betts is able to get past some creative transgressions by making her film - as mentioned - an actor's showcase piece. She's also able to harness the simple pleasures of underdog legal thrillers of the past that featured average Joes battling against incredible odds against vile one per enters that use their wealth and power to dominate anyone below them on the economic scale. THE BURIAL doesn't have massive ambitions beyond this as far as throwback genre pictures go, but it motors along quite well on its well-traveled roads and conventions. And watching Jeremiah and Willie's budding friendship and respect for one another blossom as the case progresses is genuinely involving here (Foxx and Jones make for a rather fascinating pairing considering their diametrically opposed performance choices). Foxx is afforded the vastly flashier role that will have people talking, yes, and he's crazy good here, but Jones is equally good in deceptive ways as a mild-mannered man that doesn't take kindly to being treated horribly.
Yeah, they don't make many pictures like this
anymore, which helps establish THE BURIAL as comfort genre food and,
in turn, reminded me of how good many of them tasted back in the day.