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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Lawyers will love ‘The Burial’

Molly Boyke

Though it may be too soon to decree a courtroom drama revival, Maggie Betts’ latest movie “The Burial” is a fun example of a legal crowd-pleaser reminiscent of the days when televised litigation was America’s pastime.

“The Burial” dramatizes the 1997 lawsuit against the Loewen funeral company, when funeral home owner Jerry O’Keefe sued the company for threatening his family business. He hires charismatic lawyer Willie E. Gary to represent him, whose unconventional approach—and over-the-top claim for a $100 million settlement—drew some ire from O’Keefe’s advisors.

As details of the case are investigated, more instances of insidious business practices are revealed, and Gary’s initially outlandish claim becomes more reasonable than expected. The trial is presented as the classic underdog tale: a small business owner and a novelty lawyer going up against a big company and its seasoned legal team.

The plot is standard legal drama fare with most of the movie occurring within courtroom walls once characters are introduced. However, the trial occasionally feels drawn out to match conventional dramatic beats—surprises and plot twists are emphasized for weight, but in such a generally straightforward case, these “aha” moments feel artificial.

Despite sometimes being formulaic to the point of rigidity, the movie elevates itself above the median by the strength of its cast and formal competence.

The camera moves with a sleekness and energy beyond what one would expect from a courtroom drama, and its editing helps keep everything generally engaging, even when the movie is forcibly squeezing big reveals and heel turns out of otherwise mundane testimony sequences.

While these speedy moments of legal drama can be sexy, between these are slower scenes about the value of legacy and character that allow the performances and their interactions to shine.

The movie is at its best when it tells the simplistic story of an old white businessman who’s a softie at heart and the larger-than-life Black lawyer who’s a family man at his core. Most stories of this strain would have the two first resist and then learn to accept one another, but “The Burial” does away with this dramatic contrivance—the two respect one another from the start and only grow closer.

Jamie Foxx as Willie E. Gary is the movie’s clear highlight and elevates or steals every scene he appears in. Moments where he is omitted are actively spent in anticipation. His introduction posits him as comically extravagant and a bit of a hardass—if incredibly charming—but we soon learn that Gary is through-and-through a family guy. He married his childhood sweetheart, visits his mother regularly on weekends, and soon enough takes to O’Keefe as a close friend.

Tommy Lee Jones as Jerry O’Keefe provides the other half of the movie’s heart, as an old soul who has stood on his values yet is willing to learn and grow. Despite his success, he presents a modest front and plans to use his money on his 10-ish children. Watching O’Keefe and Gary bond on screen comprises the movie’s most compelling moments.

Jurnee Smollett as opposing lawyer Mame Downes provides a legal heel to Foxx’s wacky plaintiff attorney. She matches Foxx’s charisma, but as a lawyer moreso plays the game of professionalism. Though sided with the antagonists, her character is thoroughly humanized to separate her from the unambiguously villainous Loewen and his board of directors—with this bunch there are parallels to Will Ferrell and his cronies in “Barbie.”

The central theme of “The Burial” is legacy. O’Keefe lives in relative humility and has to fight for the chance to pass his wealth down to his kids. Gary and Loewen both live extravagant lifestyles, but while the latter uses his wealth to build his empire, the former looks out for his family.

The conceit of funeral homes is not lost on the message—we all face our own burials someday, and to live rich in heart is the most valuable thing you can pass down to your children.

Part of the movie’s exploration of legacy is an interrogation of land built on centuries of slave labor and what value it holds if its foundations are built on exploitation. A modest legacy of honor is worth more than an abundant legacy of shame.

Loewen hires a Black attorney to appease the mostly Black jury, whereas O’Keefe puts complete faith in Gary and is willing to listen to his perspective and expertise. “The Burial” positions this as the fundamental difference between the two parties and as what leads O’Keefe to his eventual victory.

While its ultimate message is poignant and the movie is refreshing with its lack of “Green Book”–esque savior notions, neither are there any critical examinations of the legal system or its inherent gamification.

In “The Burial,” the legal system is played like a game. Both the plaintiff and defendant play off racial dynamics to appeal to the majority Black Mississippi jury. And though jury opinion throughout the trial is won and lost by tactics, legal victory is uncritically taken as moral victory. Three times, Johnnie Cochran is namedropped as the zenith of lawyership.

Of course playing the jury is a significant part of how the legal system works, and for O’Keefe v. Loewen, the satisfying underdog victory is precisely what it appears. We automatically root for the small businessman; the rug is never pulled from under us.

Downes all but tells the audience that her goal as a lawyer is to represent someone she knows is in the wrong. The legal system is the law of the land, and success within its constraints is the best we’ll get.

Not that every movie has to be radical or even critical. “The Burial” is a feel-good legal crowd-pleaser with a lot of heart and was exactly the kind of facile moviegoing experience I needed for a subpar weekend.

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About the Contributor
Ryan Yau
Ryan Yau, Living Arts Co-Editor
Ryan Yau (he/him) is a first-year journalism major from Hong Kong. He writes and edits for the Living Arts section, normally feature stories on artists and arts events in Boston, usually film-related. Occasionally he has an opinion. He recreationally play saxophone.

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