Director: Maggie Betts
Writers: Doug Wright, Maggie Betts & Jonathan Harr
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones & Jurnee Smollett
Director Maggie Betts, who is best known for her debut film Novitate is back with a courtroom drama based on a true story about showman lawyer Wille Gary played by Jamie Foxx and his little guy vs big corporation court case. The 90’s were filled with this genre of films, author John Grisham was the Marvel of those times, all the best actors of the time would clamour to get these roles for Oscar consideration, and it certainly defined a cultural moment in cinema. The Burial attempts to recreate this memorable moment in cinematic history with plenty of 90’s nostalgia to boot. It is also helped by an incredibly talented cast led by Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones as Jeremiah O’Keefe, a funeral director on the verge of bankruptcy. Jurnee Smollett stuns as opposing counsel in the case Mame Downes, as does Amanda Warren as Wille’s wife Gloria and Mamoudou Athie as Jeremiah’s close legal counsel Hal Dockins. It’s an absolutely stacked cast who knows the material and sticks to the classic formula to deliver a compelling film you won’t want to miss.
Wille Gary is a personal injury lawyer, a showman who clearly knows how to win over a crowd, particularly in his hometown, where he channels evangelical preacher style to swoon the jury. When Jeremiah is on the verge of bankruptcy and having his insurance license taken away due to some bad investment deals, a Canadian investor connects with him and offers to buy out a number of his funeral homes to help dig him out of his situation. Time passes, and the company doesn’t sign the contract, It’s coming up to a year since the deal was verbally made with no response so Jeremiah decides to sue the Loewen Group for 6 million dollars for backing out on the deal. Wille and Jeremiah come together and realise there is much more to this story and the Loewen group than meets the eye.
The film throws themes of race, power, death and class smartly as the case uncovers more and more. In a film like this, it is typically an all-white jury and judge who preside over the case. Here, because the suit was filed in Hinds County with a majority African American population, the race is flipped allowing for a completely opposite experience, which is one of the film’s biggest strengths. This also allows Foxx to deliver a wholly charismatic and out-there lawyer who, while is chasing the almighty dollar, understands the lower economic black communities who have been taken advantage of when they have lost a loved one.
It’s this question that lingers with the viewer, well, it did with me. Would I have $7000 for a mahogany wood casket for a loved one if it came down to it? This doesn’t include embalming and makeup, could I afford that? Would I need to look at insurance to make sure this is covered? This film does a fantastic job posing all these questions and making you think about it a little too hard.
Foxx and Jones are formidable as polar opposites. Their relationship slowly builds, and as they find common ground and their respect for each other grows, this is when the film is firing on all cylinders. Foxx can deliver a rousing court-is-in-session monologue and whip smartly into a caring friend and loving husband at the drop of a penny. Jones, while one of the leads, doesn’t get a lot to do here, it is only in his scenes with Foxx that he comes alive, and you empathise with his character. Smollett is simply stunning. Her drive to win the case and take Wille down a few pegs is a delight to watch, and her eventual realisation that while she has a job to do, the person she is working for is not who she thought.
The film comes in at a tight two-hour run time and packs a lot in here. Fortunately, while the events of what happened are important, it is the relationships formed between these unlikely allies that make this really shine. While you have definitely seen this sort of story before, it really comes down to the tight direction from Betts and the charismatic performances that make it stand out as something truly different. The days of the courtroom drama may now only exist in Netflix television series, there is still plenty of room for courtroom drama in the movie space, when they are made with this much care and attention.
The Burial is now streaming on Prime Video.
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