The Burial Society

on May 28, 2004 by Mark Keizer
It may be unfair to criticize a film for something it's not, but the reality is, the plodding and unconvincing "Burial Society" would have been a better film if not written and directed by first-timer Nicholas Racz. The story, in which a nerdy accountant hides from the mob by joining a group of elderly Jews who prepare dead bodies for Jewish burial, begs for a breakout directorial performance on the order of the Coen Brothers' "Blood Simple" or Bryan Singer's "The Usual Suspects." Unfortunately, Racz loves his narrative surprises more than the characters who exist to be surprised. The twisty storyline does have its moments, but eventually the actors are reduced to wearing the requirements of the plot like pairs of cement shoes.

When we first meet Sheldon Kasner (Rob LaBelle), he's being dangled off a bridge by men who claim he knows what happened to $2 million of stolen mob money. After escaping, he relocates to a small town and seeks out the Chevrah Kadisha, a cabal of elderly Jews (played by Jan Rubes, Allan Rich and Bill Meilen) who perform the Tahara, the ritual washing of the newly deceased to ready them for the next world. As Sheldon explains to the skeptical Chevrah Kadisha, he was a loans manager at the Hebrew National Bank, which turned out to be a money laundering operation for the mob (led by a hardly intimidating Seymour Cassel). When the $2 million went missing, Sheldon was blamed and subsequently dangled over the aforementioned bridge. He claims that after such a life-threatening experience, joining the Chevrah Kadisha will be the 180 his tired soul sorely needs. Duly convinced, the trio of elders allows Sheldon to participate in this most sacred and obscure of burial ceremonies. But Sheldon is not who he seems, and in fact has joined the group in order to execute a clever plan, which will not be revealed here.

Racz is clearly onto something, but he's just not good enough to fulfill its potential. As a director, he's lead-footed (although he's aided immeasurably by cinematographer Danny Nowak). With each twist, the narrative becomes untidy and, by the end, the whole enterprise is at once vaguely confusing and self-congratulatory. As Sheldon, LaBelle is just too much the squinty-eyed nerd and he's unable to decide whether the character is a lovable loser trying to turn his life around or a bad man who gets what's coming to him. The reliable David Paymer shows up as Sheldon's brother and the film may have had a chance if Paymer played the Sheldon role. As for the Chevrah Kadisha, in an era when older actors are routinely put out to pasture, it's nice to see three topline the same film. Unfortunately, Marvin, Hy and Harry are completely interchangeable and the actors can't do much more than recite the workmanlike dialogue.

Like countless movies before it, the film drops the main character (and, by extension, the audience) into unfamiliar territory. And though the whys and wherefores of the Tahara are explained, we come away with no more than a textbook appreciation for it. Mid-film, the Chevrah Kadisha voice their fear that this ultra-religious ceremony (which survived Hitler and Stalin) was in danger of succumbing to Jewish indifference. More exchanges like that would have given the film some heart. Ironically, Jan Rubes portrayed the Amish patriarch in 1985's "Witness," a film that did what "Burial Society" cannot, which is give us a deeper understanding of a strange, new world.

The film's low-budget feel is an unavoidable hindrance and some of the generic Canadian locations don't help: Shooting in the big, bad city would have made Sheldon's gambit seem more dangerous. Composer George Blondheim's soundscape is, for the most part, effective.

Making a thriller that revolves around a nerdy accountant, three doddering old men and an obscure Jewish burial ritual is admirably nervy. But what should have been the jumping off point for a dark and daring directing debut is instead the hard, outer shell of a disappointingly hollow experience. Starring Rob LaBelle, Jan Rubes, David Paymer and Seymour Cassel. Directed and written by Nicholas Racz. Produced by Richard Baumgartel and Howard Dancyger. A Regent release. Thriller. Rated R for language. Running time: 95 min

Tags: Rob LaBelle, Jan Rubes, David Paymer, Seymour Cassel, Nicholas Racz, Richard Baumgartel, Howard Dancyger, Regent, Thriller

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