‘The Burial’ movie review: Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones take on Big Funeral

A family businessman and a flashy Southern lawyer take on a Canadian funeral empire in The Burial, now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Focusing a story involving a contract dispute that could have easily been a sleepy courtroom affair, this first-rate legal drama turns utterly compelling thanks to two committed lead performances from Tommy Lee Jones and Jamie Foxx, in one of his finest roles to date.

The Burial stars Jones stars as real-life WWII vet and funeral director Jeremiah Joseph O’Keefe, father to thirteen and grandfather to 24, who wants nothing more than to leave his family a portion of his modest Mississippi business empire when he passes. When he finds himself in some financial trouble in the mid-1990s, he turns to longtime friend and lawyer Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) for advice.

Allred recommends O’Keefe sell three of his eight parlors to Canadian businessman Ray Loewen and his multi-billion-dollar funeral empire, which has been buying up smaller businesses across North America to create localized monopolies and drive up prices. O’Keefe seems to inherently know what kind of character Loewen is, but reluctantly agrees to a handshake deal.

Six months later, and Loewen still hasn’t finalized the contract; young lawyer Hal Dockins (Jurassic World Dominion‘s Mamoudou Athie) suggests the billionaire is stalling in efforts to bankrupt O’Keefe. They decide to take Loewen to court, and convince razzle-dazzle Florida personal injury attorney Willie Gary, seen on an episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, to join their cause.

There’s one nagging at the heart of The Burial, and it may compromise your enjoyment of the movie. Loewen’s a big bad businessman who has been screwing over poor communities in the southern United States, but he also appears to be doing it through legal means. Director Maggie Betts, who co-wrote the film with Doug Wright from a New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr, wants us to root for the punitive damages that would really stick it to Loewen, even if their legal merit seems questionable.

Harr, coincidentally, wrote A Civil Action (which became a Steven Zaillian movie starring John Travolta), which focused on the case of company dumping chemicals into a city’s water supply, resulting in negative health effects. Unlike that film, The Burial is not about achieving justice or systematic changes, but rather using Loewen as a scapegoat for the inherent amorality in big business.

And on that level, The Burial works: Camp is wonderfully sleazy as Loewen, and his climactic scenes on the stand against Foxx’s Gary, who focuses on the cost of his yacht, are especially gratifying. O’Keefe isn’t the biggest victim of Loewen’s practices, but his upstanding character is the perfect antithesis of the billionaire, and Jones’ measured performance helps sell us on the idea that he really is fighting to make things right in the world.

Foxx’s Willie Gary, meanwhile, is The Burial‘s fascinating character. He seems to be genuinely empathetic, as depicted through his growing relationship with O’Keefe as well as scenes with his wife (Amanda Warren) and mother (Summer Selby). But much like Loewen, he’s primarily motivated by money and fame. And he seems less invested in the plight of the poor Mississippi communities screwed over by Loewen, compared to Athie’s Hal, as he is in exploiting their story to win his case.

In one of the The Burial‘s most insightful scenes, Gary and lead defense attorney Mame Downs (Jurnee Smollett) discuss the O.J. Simpson case, which unfolded around the same time. Willie tells her that he’d like to prosecute the case, not because of any feelings towards Simpson’s guilt or innocence, but because he’d thrive on the chance to do battle with Johnnie Cochran.

The Burial, too, is not so concerned with guilt and innocence in the courtroom but in much larger arena, one between good and evil. This true story may not satisfy in a purely legal sense, but engaging performances throughout the cast turn it into a thoroughly compelling drama.

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