the burial society (2003)


director: nicholas racz

rob labelle, jan rubes, allan rich, bill meilen

When we first meet Sheldon (Rob LaBelle), he’s hanging upside down off the side of a bridge, dangled there by two angry men who want to know about some money. His life, he tells us, desperately needs to change, and we believe him.

When we next see Sheldon, he’s fled to a small town where he implores the old men of the local Chevrah Kadisha, or Jewish burial society, to allow him to join them in their duties - ceremonially washing and preparing corpses for burial according to tradition. Sheldon is a schlub, but for some reason they let him join, and he eventually confides in them how he’s on the run from his former bosses - the two men on the bridge - wannabe gangster sons who’ve been embezzling from the Hebrew Savings and Loan they inherited, inviting the wrath of the Jewish mob.

It’s a great, mostly conventional set-up for a neat variation on a caper film, and it only starts to unravel when Sheldon is suddenly visited by his brother (David Paymer), who’s been threatened by the mob. Sheldon, the devious schlub, admits that he stole the money, and we suddenly can’t believe anything Sheldon says - he’s become the dreaded unreliable narrator.

What follows is a bit of a mess, involving stolen bodies, faked deaths, improbable financial transactions, detectives and double-crosses. Somehow, after Sheldon’s admission of theft, it all loses it resonance; when a basic contract has been broken between an audience and a film, you end up sitting there, your arms mentally folded, regarding each new plot twist with resignation, not surprise or suspense. It seems amazing that director Nicholas Racz would let things go this far.

The final quadruple cross, for which we were barely prepared despite its uninspired plausibility, is bitterly unsatisfying. The old men of the Chevrah Kadisha, stalwart character turns by actors like Jan Rubes and Allan Rich, while suddenly revealing themselves as shrewd machers, end up squandered as sympathetic characters. A textbook example of a film that wrote itself out of control.