Let ‘The Burial’ rise towards the top of your movie queue

“The Burial” (2023) – It’s October!  For movie fans of all ages, ‘tis the season for forbidding films that thrill and chill, loaded with frightening frights and screeching scares!

Enter director/co-writer Maggie Betts’ “The Burial”. 

Imagine the late, great movie-trailer legend Don LaFontaine introducing this new Halloween-month release.

“Arriving this October, Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones rise in the terrifying after-midnight graveyard gorefest, ‘The Burial’.”

Well, despite the ominous title, Betts’ (“Novitiate” (2017)) movie isn’t horror-based at all. 

Not at all.  

It’s a courtroom drama, and it doesn’t feature murder, like in “Jagged Edge” (1985), “Presumed Innocent” (1990), or “A Few Good Men” (1992). 

Here, Betts and Doug Wright scribed a screenplay (adapted from Jonathan Harr’s 1999 “The New Yorker” article) about funeral director Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe’s (Jones) real-life lawsuit, led by his lawyer, Willie Gary (Foxx), toward the Loewen Group, Inc., a conglomerate in the industry.

O’Keefe – a 70-something WWII vet, family man, and Mississippi resident – legitimately feels that the Loewen Group, Inc. – led by a greedy mogul, Ray Loewen (Bill Camp) – is trying to run him out of business, so he turns to Gary, a wealthy, successful Florida attorney for damages.

Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) and Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx)

Foxx and Jones deliver some glorious thespian and charismatic damage of their own, and the film leans on their engaging performances as new brothers-in-arms, O’Keefe and Gary.

(Please note that Pamela Reed and Amanda Warren play admirable, supportive on-screen spouses to Jeremiah and Willie, respectively.) 

Jeremiah is a small-town, Greatest-Generation businessman who covets routine quiet evenings – seven days a week – at home, while Willie regularly flies across the country on his private jet, securing multi-million-dollar settlements.  Willie and Gloria (Warren) have a strong marriage, but sometimes he’s forced to voice his “Goodnights” from the road. 

Willie is a brilliant legal tactician and a heck of a salesman too, complete with accessories like his aforementioned luxury aerial transport, expensive watch, and flawless suits.  He also mentions his admiration for Johnnie Cochran, as this movie and the real-life events are set in the 1990s.  Gary is a showman and a winner, with Ric Flair’s flair and Rod Tidwell’s (Cuba Gooding Jr., from “Jerry Maguire” (1996)) wells of confidence.  Gary lights up every room he enters, makes terrific arguments, and wins over juries.

Why does Jeremiah want to hire an out-of-state, personal-injury attorney for his local Biloxi conundrum? 

Because Willie Gary always wins! 

Actually, Jeremiah’s biggest challenge is convincing Willie to take his case.  This particular legal challenge involves O’Keefe’s contract with Loewen, and contract law isn’t Willie’s forte. The lawsuit is for only a “paltry” few million bucks, and Gary only works with Black clients. 

After some major convincing from one of Jeremiah’s current lawyers, Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie), and a more lucrative endgame in mind, Willie takes the case, and we’re off to the judicial races.

Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie) and Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones)

Even with a 126-minute runtime, the movie breezes by, but first, Betts ensures to establish Jeremiah’s and Gary’s rock-solid but contrasting personas and plays off their differences, including race.  Set in the south, the film confronts race with humorous and sobering effects.  Jerimiah and Willie get along like peas and carrots, but Gary and his team’s presence disrupts O’Keefe’s long-time counsel, Mike Allread (Alan Ruck).  Betts and Gary confront Mike’s discomfort head-on in a hilarious moment, and Jones’ Jeremiah is free from such biases, which offers a cozy foundation between the two lead characters. 

However, Betts also includes grim race collisions, like featuring a slave burial ground, Willie’s personal story that propelled him into law, and two instances when white characters question Hal, based on the color of his skin.  Meanwhile, Hal becomes Jeremiah’s and Willie’s MVA (most valuable attorney).  

When Willie and the team run into the intimidating corporate monolith and its barrister, Harvard grad superstar Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett), the audience can turn to Hal as a barometer of future victories and defeats over the lengthy legal arguments. 

From an on-screen perspective, Jeremiah J. O’Keefe vs. Loewen Group, Inc. doesn’t entangle itself into twisty legal weeds.  Instead, Betts and Wright paint the case in broad strokes, as the sizable sways in arguments are primarily – but not entirely – centered on obvious impacts to the jury. 

Audiences won’t have to calculate differential equations to follow along, allowing the film to deliver rousing theatre – from Gary and Downes – and relax and breathe into Jeremiah and Willie’s journey and their relationships with new and old associates and respective families. 

Foxx and Jones – former comic book movie villains – are stand-up-and-cheer good guys in this David vs. Goliath drama, and if you wish for a 2-hour 6-minute reprieve from October’s startling, scary slasher flicks, let “The Burial” rise towards the top of your movie queue. 

⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Directed by:  Maggie Betts

Written by:  Maggie Betts and Doug Wright

Starring:  Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Amanda Warren, and Bill Camp

Runtime:  126 minutes

Rated: R

Image credits: Amazon Prime Video

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