The Burial – 46%

Reviewer Flickchart ranking: 2,828 / 5,262

Margaret Betts’ The Burial is a throwback to a type of film that isn’t seen frequently today. The underdog courtroom drama, once a mainstay of the cineplex, has given away to the blockbuster and low-risk horror fare that has dominated the marketplace in the 2020s. The Burial casts Jamie Foxx as stentorian lawyer Willie E. Gary and Tommy Lee Jones as quiet local businessman Jeremiah O’Keefe.

The Burial follows O’Keefe, who owns a string of funeral homes throughout southern Mississippi but makes most of his income from selling burial insurance. Jeremiah has come upon tough financial times, and his insurance company is facing problems. A lead from a Canadian company buying up funeral homes throughout America comes in, and O’Keefe is offered the opportunity to sell some of his assets. However, he is only willing to agree to the deal if the large multinational corporation agrees to stop selling burial insurance in his region. What is thought to be an easy agreement turns into months of stalling from the cooperation, pushing Jones ever closer to the brink of bankruptcy. So he elects to sue and seeks to bring on younger blood to help his case. He is then introduced to the flashy and imminently successful Willie E. Gray, who convinces O’Keefe to take on the behemoth to the tune of $100 million.

Growing up, my favorite version of the David vs. Goliath corporation courtroom films was Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rainmaker (1997). However, films like Coppola’s were often criticism of lawyers and the legal system as much as they were about the tale of greedy, heartless companies causing untold harm to common people. Betts, though, takes the story of a local funeral home owner and his region being bled dry by an ever-expanding Canadian company, and places the emphasis on race. Betts shows no disdain for the legal teams (the defense is led by the charming and powerful Jurnee Smollett) or the process itself; in fact, she lauds each attorney’s style and command of the courtroom theater. Rather, since the story takes place in a majority-Black part of Mississippi, the role of race in the Canadian company’s acquisitions and in the courtroom itself becomes Betts’ central theme.

The movie does not take any chances, and it struggles to create a sense of tension. It lacks a strong central narrative, as the focus of the film seems to alter depending on the moment, which gives the story a feeling of being rushed despite a 2-hour runtime. Most characters are given little to do, other than Foxx, who steals every scene he is in even while silent. The lighting and color saturation give The Burial a warm, comforting feel, but this robs the movie of drama.

Still, fans of courtroom films will enjoy the trial banter, the montages of rummaging through documents, the discovery of key witnesses, and big “gotcha” moments that are all solidly executed. Margaret Betts brings to life an important true story in an easy-to-digest way.

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