Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall star as father and son in the David Dobkin (Shanghai Nights, Wedding Crashers) directed family drama, The Judge. From a story and screenplay by Nick Schenk (co-written by Bill Dubuque) Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, an arrogant big shot New York defence attorney who returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, for his mother’s funeral. While there he re-bonds with his brothers Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), and an ex-flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga), but soon discovers that his estranged and seriously ill father Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), is suspected of murder and soon to face trial. With Joseph initially unwilling to allow Hank to represent him, a firm motive and the inexplicable gaps in his testimony leave plenty for prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) to use to put him away. That is unless father and son can put aside their difference and mend decades of conflict.
What I especially liked about The Judge was the commitment to its characters. There isn’t a relationship in this film that feels short-changed. When you have two of cinemas most compelling performers sharing the screen, the material would have to be pretty dire for it to fail to compel. As Hank must face his suppressed secrets and mistakes he made in his youth, he must also deal with his father’s debilitating health and the question of whether or not he’s guilty. It’s more than enough.
Despite all of its success the legal authenticity is questionable and the film does struggle to balance the comedic and dramatic tones. Downey Jr and Vera Fermiga carry the comedic load successfully, with Farmiga elevating their potentially clichéd relationship into something heart warming. The surprisingly weighty sibling bond and complex father/son relationship – which includes a number of genuinely surprising revelations – has the potential to move even the most cynical viewers.
The brotherhood between the three siblings is especially potent, considering how one event drastically affected all of their lives, and how Hank’s older brother Glen set aside a promising career to look after his family in Carlinville, while Hank skipped town and never looked back. With Hank and Joseph’s relationship a volatile whirlwind – at one point actually reaching a peak during a hurricane (the film isn’t subtle on metaphors) – Glen and Dale are caught in the middle of it. As happy as they are to see Hank, it is under tragic circumstances, and they continue for the family. Hank is returning home in bad shape, but begins to develop into a human being worth knowing.
The cheesy moments that frequent the trailer are peppered throughout, but it’s initial negative response at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it opened, is not a reflection of The Judge‘s quality. I did take issue with the horrid lighting used by Steven Spielberg regular Janusz Kaminski, however. Almost every interior shot featured blinding white light entering one side of the space, drowning half of the performer’s faces in this light, and leaving the other half barely visible in the shadow. There were also indulgent sweeping establishing shots that served little purpose. These were mostly early on. This is all largely forgivable because the plot was engaging enough.
Considering its hefty 141-minute running time, The Judge remains perfectly watchable and has a commendably restrained conclusion. It is an engaging, well performed and surprisingly deep drama about the importance of family, dealing with second chances and reprieving guilt.
By Andrew Buckle
Director: David Dobkin
Writer(s): Nick Schenk & Bill Dubuque (screenplay)
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio
Runtime: 141 minutes
Release date(s): Australia & New Zealand: October 9 2014; USA: October 10 2014