I love a good courtroom drama. We don’t get enough of them anymore, either. There’s something about the format, which really leans on strong acting and writing, that appeals to me. This year, we’ve almost gotten a mild resurgence of the form, as The Burial comes out right alongside the release of The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial. More please. While The Burial is far from perfect, it does a lot of what you like to see from the genre. With a bit less melodrama, this really could have been something.
The Burial is very traditional and in many ways a relic of the 1990s. At the same time, what works is what works, and aside from some ham-fisted attempts at melodrama, as well as the occasional bit of needlessly broad comedy, this is a very satisfying courtroom flick. It doesn’t hurt that our lead is an actor who sinks his teeth into a litigator role with the sort of gusto that makes him a pleasure to watch here.
Based on a true story, this is a David v Goliath courtroom tale. The only quirk? David has a superstar lawyer. When funeral home owner Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones) has a handshake deal with corporate titan Ray Loewen (Bill Camp) go sour, he’s in need of help. His friend and longtime lawyer Mike Allred (Alan Ruck) knows contracts, but young attorney Hal Dockins (Mamoudou Athie) pitches Jeremiah on a more radical move. So, he enlists the charismatic and smooth-talking attorney Willie E. Gary (Jamie Foxx), more known for personal injury than anything else. He’s initially uninterested in the case, but is convinced to help save the family business by dreams of becoming even richer and more famous by taking down a corporate giant.
Ray sees Willie as a playing of the race card, so he hires his own ace in young hotshot Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett). What starts poorly as a mismatched endeavor eventually becomes a bonding experience for Jeremiah and Willie, all the while exposing high level corporate corruption as well as racial injustice. While the verdict is never really in doubt, seeing it come together is mostly very enjoyable.
Jamie Foxx goes to town on this showy role. While Mamoudou Athie, Bill Camp, and Alan Ruck are mostly wasted, Foxx has all of the best material. Tommy Lee Jones is his reliable self, which is not a bad thing. Jurnee Smollett has more to do than you’d think, but the star power is all centered on Foxx. He goes big with the part, but when it’s time to get super serious, he’s just as good. His courtroom sequences are actually some of the best work of his career. Supporting players here include Pamela Reed, Amanda Warren, and more.
Filmmaker Maggie Betts knows the beats of the genre well, and while she leans too heavily into forced melodrama at times, the movie is undeniably effective. Co-writing with Jonathan Harr and Doug Wright, Betts hits the expected moments throughout the script in a way that’s largely pleasing. If there’s a notable flaw, it’s the melodramatic camera movements during courtroom revelations. It’s a bit too cliched, especially when Betts is allowing for some good character work elsewhere.
The Burial is more or less what you think it is, and that’s not especially a bad thing. As a crowd pleaser, this works, even if there are flaws. If you like courtroom dramas, especially ones from a bygone era, this should be for you. I had a good time with it, so as long as your not expecting an overt awards player, you should be in for a satisfying cinematic time.