The courtroom drama film has been around nearly as long as the medium of film itself. Following what felt like an oversaturation in the Grisham-influenced 1990s, the genre seemed to fall somewhat out of favor in recent years, though it still rears its head on occasion. But in these final months of 2023, there is a mini-renaissance happening, with Palme d’Or winner Anatomy of a Fall, The Caine Mutiny Court Martial – the final film of William Friedkin, and The Burial all reaching screens. Based (somewhat loosely) on a true story, The Burial is an entertaining and thoughtful film from director/co-writer Maggie Betts.
In the 1990s, Jeremiah “Jerry” O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) is on the brink of losing the Mississippi funeral home/burial insurance business that his family has spent generations building. Jerry made some bad savings and loan business dealings with a man that turned out to be operating illegally. Deeply in debt, the state Insurance Commission is coming for Jerry’s license, as he doesn’t have the required cash on hand to back his insurance policies. So to save the business as a whole, Jerry and his attorney Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) agree to meet with the Loewen Group, a massive funeral home operation led by CEO Ray Loewen (Bill Camp). The men strike what Jerry feels is a done deal, but weeks turn into months with no signature on the contract on Loewen’s side. Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), a smart junior member of Jerry’s legal team, comes to the conclusion that Loewen is waiting for the regulatory hammer to drop on Jerry’s business, leaving Loewen free to scoop up his assets for a fraction of the contract price. Jerry agrees to file suit. With the lawsuit pending in a largely black county, Dockins suggests that the white Allred may not be the best face of the legal team. He suggests taking the case to the immensely successful and immensely charismatic Florida personal injury attorney Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx). Initially reluctant to take on a contract law case, Gary eventually joins the team. Recognizing the strategy Dockins has put forward, Loewen and his team of white attorneys hire a group of highly powerful black attorneys to take charge of the case. This team is led by Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett). Downes and her team initially try to keep things straightforward on contract law, but as the trial continues to veer into racial territory, she has no problem puncturing the O’Keefe team’s case. Particularly in regards to Allred’s grandfather, who had been a member of the KKK. The case continues with dark revelations and surprising settlement offers on its way to concluding.
Based on a 1999 New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr, co-writers Betts and Doug Wright have created a classically told legal drama shot through with highly relevant looks at race and the economic devastation of the billionaire class. While there are certainly moments in the courtroom that feel lifted from dozens of other films (I’m quite certain I never need to hear a judge in a film utter anything close to “you’re on thin ice here, counselor – but I’ll allow it” ever again), other moments, like a late-film visit to a family who had been taken advantage of by Loewen’s partnership with the National Baptist Church, are incredibly powerful. And the film isn’t afraid to show the tougher side of jury politics and the power of likability. Mame Downes and her team have the better case on the face of things, but Gary’s charisma and the coldness of Ray Loewen on the stand show how the legal system can truly operate. Betts, making her second feature film here, after Novitiate in 2017, is a solid writer and director who seems to be very good with actors.
Because the performances are the real driving force of the film. Jamie Foxx is doing powerhouse work here. His Willie Gary is smart, charming, clever as a litigator and still has a strong emotional center. The tone of his performance changes based on who he is interacting with, and it’s fascinating to watch. Between this and They Cloned Tyrone, which came out earlier this summer, Foxx is having the best year of his career since the 1-2 punch of Collateral and Ray in 2004. Tommy Lee Jones is giving a quiet performance here as Jerry. He’s solid, but generously gives the spotlight in most scenes to his co-stars. Jurnee Smollett has been on a great run for the last several years, and continues that here. Athie is another standout in the film, strongly portraying a smart younger black attorney condescended to by the largely white power structure around him. And while it’s a fairly small role, Amanda Warren steals every scene she’s in as Gloria Gary, Willie’s wife.
The Burial is a well made, powerfully acted, thoughtful film that is worth seeking out for fans of legal films, or of these actors.
The Burial is currently streaming on Amazon Prime