Sunday 22 October 2023

On demand: "The Burial"

The Burial
 is another of those Nineties throwbacks engineered by creatives who spent their formative years browsing the racks at Blockbuster Video. Its primary model is the John Grisham legal procedural (definite-article, two-word title; characterful lawyers; progressive social outlook; final courtroom showdown), but it's a throwback that benefits from thirty years more reading and learning; it doesn't want to repeat the mistakes of the past. Certainly, this script - by Doug Wright and the director Maggie Betts - is nuanced about race in a way the oft-clumsy, proto-Sorkinian white liberal pieties of The Client and A Time to Kill weren't, and because it derives from a true story rather than one Caucasian millionaire's imagination, there's an element of journalism in the mix, too. A closing credit confirmed what I suspected all along: that the story hails from a New Yorker article, by Jonathan Harr. It's a story that, in passing, tells us something about subjects neither of us would likely have considered much: the workings of the American funeral business, and the kind of nuts-and-bolts litigation that passed through courts unexamined while the OJ trial's scurrilous three-ring circus was hogging all the attention. Yet in the hands of Nineties kids Wright and Betts, it also becomes a buddy comedy of sorts, charting the vaguely unlikely alliance between terse Jeremiah "Jerry" O'Keeffe (so terse he's played by Tommy Lee Jones), who agreed to sell his Mississippi funeral home to an umbrella company so as to find the cash he needed to repay the Government, and Willie Gary (Jamie Foxx), the flamboyant, self-made legal eagle who flew in - aboard his private jet, known as "Wings of Justice" - to represent O'Keeffe after the corporation reneged on the deal.

As the film has it, Gary was hired because the case was filed in a predominantly black community and thus liable to be heard before a majority black jury. (The lawyer's credentials are established in the opening scene, showing the righteous Gary preaching from the pulpit of his local Baptist church.) O'Keeffe - a war hero active in the civil rights movement - insists this is by no means a discrimination suit, but as whipsmart defence lawyer Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett) puts it around the trial's midpoint, "race keeps trying to come up". Betts has a nice, sure feel for the way her staid, formalised courtroom setting suddenly erupts with long-suppressed squabbles and spats: everything comes back to ownership, a subject the film defines as race-adjacent. Contract law is a matter who screwed who; it turns out O'Keeffe wasn't the only one the corporation cheated. The discovery process proves a little long and clunky, and you can feel Betts going through the gears as the prosecution's case gets comprehensively redirected. But this filmmaker visibly likes people, and she really likes actors, which is more than enough to keep The Burial on its own path of righteousness. 

You see it most clearly in Betts' decision to take a chance on Jones, despite his, uh, formidable reputation: her reward - which is also our reward - is this actor's most relaxed and likable showing in some while. Even if for no other reason, The Burial will go down in history as the one and only film in which Jones - wholly charmingly - hums along to Tony! Toni! Toné! (The combo's comeback cannot be mere coincidence.) Betts makes a good, longsighted pick in Mamoudou Athie as the earnest nephew who becomes an essential part of O'Keeffe's legal team; upright and foursquare, he offers an appreciable contrast to Foxx's (thoroughly enjoyable) showboating - the kind of showboating you can only get away with when attached to a shrewd legal mind. And the supporting cast is stocked Grisham-deep with folks you're only too happy to see: Bill Camp as the corporate fatcat going toe-to-toe with Foxx on the witness stand and nose-to-nose with Jones over the negotiating table; the wonderful Pamela Reed as Jones's wife, a final conscience-check for every major decision; Alan Ruck as the good ol' boy O'Keeffe associate trying to swallow down his prejudice long enough to ensure the win. Perhaps the film's biggest throwback is its optimism - its faith in the ability of diverse groups of people to talk through their differences, make the right call, and thus improve the world in some quantifiable way. The fatcats and bigshots have spent the thirty years since doing their best to ensure that doesn't happen, and accruing the wealth that allows them to make the payoffs that ensure that doesn't happen. The hope Betts's film rather touchingly exhumes and holds up is that the conversational corrective is still out there - that, unlike Blockbuster, it's not dead and buried yet.

The Burial is now streaming via Prime Video.

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