The Burial (2023) Movie Review – A rousing legal drama that embraces its theatrics way too tightly

A rousing legal drama that embraces its theatrics way too tightly

The Burial is an original Amazon Studios film that recounts one of America’s most infamous legal trials. Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones play real-life figures William Gary and Jerry O’Keefe who together took down the Loewen Group back in the 1990s.

The film is a legal drama that works in parts but ultimately succumbs to the generosity of its ambitions beyond script and narrative. However, it has all the expected genre beats that will involve you as a viewer to care for the characters and their legal conceits.

The film allows you to connect with the emotions that drive the story forward. Somewhere along the way, though, it becomes problematic as the suspension of disbelief scales new heights. However, we do recommend The Burial to our readers for its rousing mass appeal and compelling performances.

O’Keefe owns funeral homes and a burial insurance business in Mississippi. Due to financial difficulties and regulatory oversight, Jerry runs the risk of losing his business. And with it, his only chance to pass on a legacy to his children. He tries to make a deal with Ray Loewen, who owns a conglomerate chain of funeral homes across the region. Although Ray initially agrees to the terms, Jerry is left frustrated as Ray deliberately stalls. He takes the group to court and employs the help of William Gary, one of the country’s foremost personal injury lawyers.

The practitioner is up against “the dream team” led by Mame Downes. William and Mike Allred, Jerry’s long-standing friend and lawyer, face off multiple times as they try to make a compelling case in Jerry’s favour. Ultimately, the case is shaped by racial dynamics and the characters of the parties involved as Gary and co. discover an ugly truth that shakes their foundations. 

In its essence, The Burial is a courtroom drama. But Maggie Betts, who also directs the film, and Doug Wright go beyond the subject matter to explore themes like America’s chequered history with racial injustices and how systemic exploitation is corporatized and converted into profits. In fact, this social commentary dominates the second half of the film. Even though the first half is cognizant of the importance of race at the core of the story, it stands in contrast to how much the discourse goes off rails when Jerry gives Willie a second chance with the finding about NBC. 

Somewhere in that transition, The Burial completely stops being a legal drama, abandoning the structure for something more universal and raucous. It is not necessarily a bad creative choice but it ends up stemming the flow of the storytelling. We start off with the duel between Mame and Willie being pitched as a battle of stalwarts. Their respective teams are engaged in outwitting the other camp by using law, evidence, and reason. But after the shift, the contest is no longer about which side finds out the defining law or comes up with some clever ruse in the court to gain the upper hand. And in my eyes, that becomes problematic.

The expectations that are built up to see something like All Good Men or Fracture are not delivered upon. If you want to have an experience similar to watching those two movies, you might as well skip The Burial. However, one thing that the creators cannot be faulted for is the characterization of the ensemble. Almost none of the characters – especially our protagonists – are written in a way to diminish their importance or intelligence.

They are human in their own flawed, unique ways. The idealistic pandering that many filmmakers resort to is thankfully absent in Jerry and Willie. This is where Foxx and Jones fall heavily on their talent and experience to navigate their characters’ idiosyncrasies, the former more than anyone else. Foxx’s performance is special because of how over-the-top it is and yet so profound and moving. It is so easy for a character like Gary to be misunderstood by us and misread by the actor playing him.

Foxx’s portrayal walks the tightrope of drama and soul with aplomb. He hardly puts a foot wrong, and it is clear he relishes the challenge of playing Gary on screen. I am tempted to say it might be the best of his career or at least near the top.

Jones is efficiently soothing and sagely as Jerry. He’s so skillful in his craft that you’d hardly notice him in the background but even so, his presence is felt. My mind harkens back to his award-winning performance in Lincoln as Thaddeus Stephens and the similarities with Jerry O’Keefe. Two men fighting institutional powers with a similar resilience of character. The expression of the same is different in both the portrayals but the impact is sustained.

The contrast that Foxx and Jones set while together is a nod to their unique chemistry and partnership.  I dare say it is what makes The Burial so lasting in memory after you’ve finished watching it. There are some really powerful, stirring monologues that will bring you closer to Betts’ vision of making a bolder statement about race with the story.

The writing is generally good but the abundance of one-liners and buildups to these moments of theatre drains out their impact. The storytelling is flavorful, and Betts does make excellent use of her peppy soundtrack. Although it does not beget the seriousness of the subject matter, it neither undermines the heady themes.

The Burial has its flaws and is far from perfect. The gentle promise of a legal drama is replaced by the loud, and at times obnoxious, over-deliverance of drama. While its exuberance is undying and it is certainly not off-putting, there is a sense of a missed opportunity. But perhaps that is what it takes to be heard and understood.


Read More: The Burial Ending Explained

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  • Verdict - 6/10

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