Jamie Foxx and Tommy Lee Jones are the odd couple of flashy lawyer and small town client in this mid-90s set crowdpleaser

The Burial

Source: Toronto International Film Festival

‘The Burial’

Dir: Maggie Betts. USA. 2023. 126mins

A barnstorming performance from Jamie Foxx (and sterling supporting work from his suits) drives this punchy and wildly entertaining courtroom drama in which he plays Willie E. Gary, a showboating and highly successful personal injury lawyer, He’s not an obvious choice for his latest case, which involves a handshake deal gone sour, and a mom and pop funeral home business in Mississippi that is threatened by a massive multinational ‘death care’ conglomerate, owned by billionaire Ray Loewen (Bill Camp). But while Willie knows nothing about contract law, he knows people. And he is determined to do right by his client, 75-year-old Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones). Based on a real case, and a New Yorker article by Jonathan Harr, the second film from director Maggie Betts is a mid 90s-set, crowdpleasing, triumphant air punch of a movie.

A crowdpleasing, triumphant air punch of a movie

The film is a marked tonal contrast to Betts’ fiction feature debut, the 1960s-set nun drama The Novitiate (which earned her the Breakthrough Director prize at Sundance). Here, Betts demonstrates a deft touch for comedy and a versatility that should make her a name to watch with interest going forward. The picture will receive a limited theatrical release in October – presumably to ensure that Foxx takes a well-deserved slot in awards conversations going forward – before streaming globally on Prime Video.

It’s billed as a David and Goliath battle, albeit one in which David has his own private jet and a watch which cost more than the average house. Willie is known for his force of nature personal charm (and the massive compensation packages handed out to his clients), and one of his great talents is his ability to control a narrative. Hence his decision to skate past the drab details of whether or not the contested contract was legally binding, and to argue an emotive case based around race. It is a risky strategy, particularly given that his client is an elderly white man from the deep south. Anticipating the line of attack, Loewen hires a crack team of elite Black lawyers, headed by the formidable Mame Downes (Jurnee Smollett). It’s fair to say that the odds are firmly stacked against Willie and Jeremiah.

A performance as dynamic as that of Foxx here can easily unbalance a picture, so it’s to Betts’ credit that the film works as well as it does as an ensemble piece. Mamoudou Athie is endearingly gauche as the earnest junior member of Jeremiah’s legal team who first comes up with the idea of hiring Willie; Pamela Reed, as Jeremiah’s wife Annette, works comic wonders with a couple of reaction shots. And Smollet is terrific: power-suited, ultra-professional and more than a match for Willie’s bombast.

But the heart of the film is the unexpectedly warm relationship between client and attorney. There’s a playful early contrast between the speaking styles of Willie (electrifying, energising, galvanising) and Jeremiah (time slows down, life drains from the room) which sets the tone for the odd couple friendship that builds between them. Despite their personality differences, there’s a mutual respect and shared values: family, above all else, drives them both.

Music choices are suitably upbeat, with ’Feels Good’ a track by 90s R&B outfit Tony! Toni! Toné! used, rather cheekily, at a pivotal moment. And the brisk rhythms and energy of the storytelling ensure that the pace rarely flags, and that every frame of this film about the business of death is bursting with life.

Production companies: Amazon Studios, Double Nickel Entertainment, Foxxhole Productions, Maven Screen Media, Bobby Shriver Productions

Contact: Amazon Studios

Producers: Celine Rattray, Trudie Styler, Jamie Foxx, Datari Turner, Jenette Kahn, Adam Richman, Bobby Shriver

Screenplay: Doug Wright, Maggie Betts

Cinematography: Maryse Alberti

Editing: Lee Percy, Jay Cassidy

Production design: Kay Lee

Music: Michael Abels

Main cast: Jamie Foxx, Tommy Lee Jones, Jurnee Smollett, Alan Ruck, Mamoudou Athie, Pamela Reed, Bill Camp