Throwback legal drama elevated by excellent performances.
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Movies like “The Burial” (now streaming on Amazon Prime Video) don’t get made real often anymore. It’s a modestly budgeted legal drama featuring two A-list (and Academy Award-winning) actors that’s targeted towards adults. The picture takes place in 1995 and often feels as though it was filmed back then … and there’s nothing wrong with that as this is a refreshing throwback to yesteryear.
Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) is the owner of a small funeral home chain and the former Mayor of Biloxi, Miss (his hometown). He’s a decorated war hero, husband to Annette (Pamela Reed – the “Kindergarten Cop” actress is a sight for sore eyes and a very welcome presence), father to 13 grown children and grandpa to a gaggle of grandkids.
O’Keefe’s life seems pretty idyllic and for the most part it is … save for the financial hardships in which he’s found himself. The patriarch wants to leave something behind for his children and grandchildren once he’s gone. To ensure he can do so O’Keefe’s longtime lawyer and friend Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) encourages him to sell the business to Canadian billionaire Ray Loewen (Bill Camp), who’s been buying up mom-and-pop parlors left and right.
Loewen drags his feet in signing the paperwork hoping to force Jeremiah into bankruptcy so he can snatch up the homes for a song. This prompts O’Keefe to sue. Junior attorney Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie) encourages O’Keefe to engage the services of flashy, famed, Floridian litigator Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx) for additional counsel.
Dockins feels Gary will be an invaluable asset to O’Keefe as they’re suing in a predominantly poor and black county and he’s on a 12-year winning streak. Loewen in turn hires the Howard and Harvard-educated “python” Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) to represent him.
As directed by Maggie Betts (“Novitiate”) and scripted by Betts and Doug Wright (“Quills”) – adapting Jonathan Harr’s 1999 New Yorker article – “The Burial” isn’t a flashy piece of filmmaking, but it’s an effective one. It’s a smart, funny and moving movie made for grown folks, which tactfully tackles the financial and racial inequalities existing in this country. It’s also rife with wonderful performances.
Jones and Foxx have an easy and natural chemistry. Foxx especially is electric. His Gary comes across like Johnnie Cochran or Jackie Chiles … only with a heart of gold. We’ve seen Foxx play lawyers (“Law Abiding Citizen”) and characters named Willie (“Any Given Sunday”), but we’ve never seen him like this. They’re strongly supported by Smollett and Ruck whose characters would likely be lazily reduced to villainous roles elsewhere – Downes’ tenaciousness and Allred’s good old boy tendencies are ultimately humanized. Athie may very well be the picture’s stealth MVP. This dude is just so damned likable on screen and brings an integrity to almost every role I’ve ever seen him inhabit.
“The Burial” doesn’t break a whole lot of new ground, but what it does it does exceedingly well. Don’t let this throwback to simpler and arguably better times get buried in the streaming ether.