You Be the Judge of This New-Age Courtroom Drama
The final scenes of “The Burial” contain one of the more baffling filmmaking decisions you’ll ever see in a courtroom drama. When preacher-turned-plaintiff’s attorney William Gary (Jamie Foxx) is about to make his closing argument in a case that will define his career, the director cuts directly to the announcement of the verdict. It’s a ludicrous to rob viewers of the final argument, a staple of this genre, especially since this case contains no evidence and relies entirely on the ability of Gary to persuade the jury of the defendant’s wrongdoing. In the context of entertainment value, it’s especially galling: the only thing this film has going for it is the rhetorical ability of Jamie Foxx.
When I was growing up, the courtroom drama was one of the most reliable movie genres. From “A Few Good Men” to “The People vs. Larry Flynt”, the purest entertainment of the ’90s was set in courtrooms. The appeal of the genre went beyond cinema. Court TV thrived in the decade, and “Ally McBeal” and “The Practice” ruled the airways. Still, the movies were the best. There is little more satisfying than watching an injustice corrected in two hours by charismatic movie stars reciting thundering dialogue.
This year, courtroom dramas are back, but can they live up to the genre at its height? The early returns are negative. At a glance, “The Burial” looks like a slam dunk. It’s the story of Jeremiah O’Keefe (Tommy Lee Jones), who has run the family funeral home business for half a century, before poor money management led him to make a desperate sale of several of the homes to Raymond Loewen (Bill Camp), a much wealthier man in the same business. After agreeing to terms, Loewen fails to sign the contract, hoping that O’Keefe will be forced to declare bankruptcy, leaving Loewen free to swoop in and buy his business for an even lower price. In response, O’Keefe hires Gary and sues for breach of contract.
The central question of the case isn’t exactly the stuff of great drama: Is a contract binding if it hasn’t been signed? Moreover, “The Burial” fails to achieve the most basic narrative imperative of the genre, because it never feels like a grave injustice has been done. It seems wrong, yes, that the big, bad funeral home company uses its power to take from the little guy, but neither Gary nor the filmmakers ever provide a lick of evidence it was done with intention. Perhaps we are meant to intuit that the rich guy is guiltier than the middle-class guy, but a screenwriter of a courtroom drama needs to build its case as well as a lawyer, and this one is guilty of cutting narrative corners.
Or maybe it just has a different kind of justice on its mind. Gary quickly realizes he doesn’t have much evidence, so he slyly shifts the focus towards character issues, specifically as it applies to race. To the all-Black jury, he highlights O’Keefe’s civil rights activism, as well as the nefarious racial dealings he has uncovered in Loewen’s past. Foxx is such a lively presence in the courtroom —harkening back to the work of Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington three decade ago — that you almost don’t notice how rote and unimaginative the dialogue is, and how irrelevant the events he is recounting are to the case at hand.
Slowly but surely, a case about a contract dispute becomes a referendum on racial misdeeds that are clearly not criminal, although they speak to a larger, more ambiguous injustice. It had the makings of a modern-day take on courtroom drama, one that prioritizes passion and identity issues over hard evidence and legal procedure — in other words, a courtroom drama for the social media era — but this one leans too heavily on familiar tropes. There are fiery cross-examinations, surprise witnesses, and, of course, a scene in which Gary quietly confesses his fears about losing the case to his supportive wife. These sturdy conventions don’t play when the foundation is so flimsy.
The tropes that once sounded the notes of onscreen justice ring strangely hollow today. The offscreen events “The Burial” is based on occurred in 1995 when the courtroom genre was thriving, and America was consumed with legal justice. It was optioned for a film four years later, after it was written up in The New Yorker. Hollywood took over 20 years to get around to making it, and in that time our notion of justice has changed fundamentally. Maybe the courtroom drama needs to change along with it.