Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.
Year 3, Film #31
THE GOOD: Coming out of the theater I was a bit awestruck. There were a handful of flaws that, from an outside perspective, would make The Judge seem like a less than extraordinary film. But walking out into the hallway and getting onto the T home, it was like I was in a trance, as if I couldn’t tell what just happened. Granted, I’m exaggerating this story a bit — this film is not going to be the next Citizen Kane and I’ve seen better films this year — but the fact remains that The Judge got me to forget where I was for a couple hours and envelop me in Carlinville, Indiana with Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall).
Let’s start with the casting. If you’ve seen anything Robert Downey, Jr. has done you’ll know he has a very specific character he plays. It’s type-casting in the best-possible way and it almost always produces great results. In The Judge this casting is spot-on. Robert Downey, Jr. is Hank Palmer — an arrogant, full-of-himself, smart alec lawyer who seems to always be funny even when he’s tearing someone to shreds. As Samantha (Vera Farmiga) remarks in the film (and can be heard in the trailer), “You are simultaneously the most generous and the most selfish person I know.”
The other character that needs to be cast exactly right is that of the Judge himself, Judge Joseph Palmer. Robert Duvall has always been a constant presence in Hollywood, and I won’t go so far as to say this is his best performance ever (he won an Academy Award for Tender Mercies which I’ve never seen, he was also great in The Godfather and Apocalypse Now and received nominations for both), but Duvall certainly brings his A-game for The Judge. No one could pull off the temperamental, stubborn, and righteous old Judge with such a high regard for justice as well as Duvall does.
I’ve focused so much on the casting here, and with these two character in particular, because they are the core of this film. More than most films (which often have several things that can reel you in), The Judge relies heavily on Hank and Joseph. This is a father-and-son story, it’s an underdog story, it’s a story about right and wrong. It’s a story about Hank and Joseph affects and colors everything else. And without getting the perfect match for these characters, the whole film would crumble. But since we do get Downey, Jr. and Duvall things seem to just work.
And there’s a lot of things going on in this film. They cover death and loss, divorce and betrayal, and most importantly justice and honesty. Parts of this film are extremely difficult to watch. Not because of gory violence or other forms of inflicted pain, but because of it’s brutally accurate look at life. Gone Girl is a film of extremes and what happens when love or hatred goes too far, The Judge takes a similar approach, but much more realistic — like something that would actually occur in your own life. There’s a funeral, a cancer diagnosis, divorce, a murder trial, and family turmoil stemming from Joseph’s disappointment in Hank as a child. All these things add up and force us to look at the big picture and sets us up for some heartfelt revelations at the end.
THE BAD: I did mention this film has some flaws. Notably, they take advantage of the courtroom drama almost to the point of trivializing what goes on there. We get some moments of comedy (the selection of jurors, Hank kills this section — “Who has any bumper stickers?”) and some moments of pure drama (Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) presenting the prosecution’s case). But then we get this moment at the end when it becomes the father-and-son show where Hank tears up and Joseph opens up about feelings he’s never confessed before. This makes for great and entertaining film, and it’s certainly a moving and emotional time in the story, but it feels wholly out of place.
For a film whose bread and butter is the court and the justice system, it feels odd to pull a scene out of Kramer vs. Kramer and devolve into something completely out of character. Dickham doesn’t object once during this moment between Hank and Joseph, nor does the presiding Judge Warren (Ken Howard) attempt to stop it. I’ve seen very little Law & Order and other “true” courtroom dramas, but I like to think I know enough that if the witness breaks into a long-winded story about his feelings for his son, who by the way is his defensive attorney, that is has to be the basis for a mistrial or some cause to get back to the “facts” and the “evidence” rather than conjecture.
THE TAKEAWAY: I mentioned at the outset how this film leaves you in a bit of a trance when the credits start to roll. Despite the handful of flaws The Judge has (there’s some more minor ones in addition to the major one I noted above), I couldn’t help but just focus on the many positives this film has. Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall help make this film much more than a traditional father-and-son or underdog story about overcoming great obstacles. They help make this an incredibly emotional and powerful film that leaves you overwhelmed.
When I looked down at my watch and saw that two-and-a-half hours had passed even though it felt like well under two hours, that was the icing on the cake that told me to do something Judge Palmer did. In the film Judge Palmer gives Mark Blackwell the minimum sentence of 30 days for shooting up a residential house because he saw good in the boy. I’m giving The Judge full marks here because I’m willing to overlook some negatives in order to fully embrace and appreciate its many positive qualities.
The Judge opens in theaters this Friday, October 10, 2014.
THE RATING: 5 out of 5