On coming out of the movie theatre after seeing the movie “The Judge” you might be forgiven for asking what kind of movie you just saw. Part court-room drama, part road movie, part family drama. Rather than being a schizophrenic mis-mash it actually comes together well.
Robert Downey Jnr, sets-off Robert Duvall’s character perfectly. There are essentially two main story lines, firstly the family dramas which unfold following the death of the mother of the clan (who we never meet) and then the court-case involving his father, the judge.
Downey’s character, Harry (Hank) Palmer is a Chicago lawyer, who on the surface has everything, great house, family, career all. Upon news of his mother’s death he returns to the home from which he has been estranged for some years. Upon his return it soon becomes clear why. The head of the house, Judge Palmer, played by Robert Duval is a painfully honest man, who sees things in his own way, of basic uncomplicated justice. He has been Judge in their town for over 40 years and his legacy hangs heavy on him. The character in some ways reminds me of the character he played in Secondhand Lions, ( 2003) again a tough old guy, straight as a die, who does not suffer fools. His wisdom of Solomon type approach may have kept the townsfolk out of trouble most of the time, but it was a recipe for disaster at home. He had 3 sons, the oldest Glen, played by Vincent D’Onofrio,(Law and Order: Criminal Intent, 2001) the middle son, Hank, (Downey) and the youngest son (Jeremy Strong).
It was directed by David Bodkin, who is better known for movies such as “Wedding Crashers” or “Change up”, while Nick Schenk (Gran Torino 2008) and Bill Dubuque took the lead with the script.
While home and dealing with his own pending divorce, Hank Palmer runs immediately in to the family tensions. We find out early on that the eldest son Glen was destined to be a baseball star until a car accident in his late teens damaged his arm and put an end to his career. We are allowed to presume who was responsible for the accident, it is only later that we are told what actually happened. Glen has the resentment of the son who stayed at home while his brother became something, he had to remain in his father’s shadow, running his own garage at the edge of town and also helping to look after his youngest brother Dale, played brilliantly by Strong has learning difficulties and uses a movie camera to record the life around him almost all of the time.
Not long after Hank arrives home, all three are on the porch of the house, when the Judge announces he is going to bed and makes final arrangements for the funeral, going inside he turns to his youngest son and looking him in the face, calmly says to him that if the camera makes an appearance at the funeral it will go up his arse.
While the family comes to terms with the loss, we see Glen’s resentment at life and we see the Judge being as stoic as ever. Hank, takes some time to watch his father in court and also meet some old neighbours (girlfriend). In to this mix comes news that their father has been in a traffic accident and a young man has been killed. The difficulty is that Judge Palmer has no recollection of the accident and the person he killed was somebody he locked away 20 years ago for the murder of a young girl, who has just been released on parole.
Such are the tensions that just as Hank is returning to Chicago he is told of the Judge’s arrest. Despite the tensions in their relationship Hank immediately begins to legally defend his father. When his father announces that he has hired one of the local lawyers for his defence, Hank sits in on the meetings. When the case comes to court it is quickly evident to all concerned that the local guy C.P., (played by Dax Shepard, Parenthood, 2010) is out of his depth when up against the sharp special prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, the Man who Wasn’t There, 2001)brought in to fight the case.
Downey quickly takes over his father’s defence and struggles to defend him. His father’s health and general attitude prove the biggest challenges.
There are so many twists and turn that I do not want to say too much. Outside of the courtroom we get a view of the family and in particular the three sons (neither of Glen’s two sons will ever play baseball professionally). What we see is three brothers who when allowed to be themselves get on perfectly, but in the presence of their father revert practically to kids, he controls the house. The Relationship with Hank and all the other is obviously stained, at one stage the Judge turns to him and said how he wished he liked his him more. With Downey being in the movie there are a number of opportunities for some light humour, all of which Bodkin takes, mainly revolving around events between Hank and his ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring, 2013)of over 20 years ago, who he meets almost immediately upon return home. The issue in question is whether or not her daughter might actually be his also.
The movie is in many ways similar to “August: Osage County” from last year, this however is a better movie. We see essentially three movies in one, the homecoming/road movie, the family struggles and the court case.
As the movie develops, the Judge’s health declines, further adding to the developing story. This could have been a bad made-for-TV movies except for the quick wit created by the screenwriters and brilliantly delivered by the cast. The cinematography is simple, no great sweeping or dramatic shots to allow the director to tell the world how great he is, instead every scene counts, we get a feeling of closeness and despite being over 2 hours long, you do not feel the time go.
I did start the film wondering how it was going to go, my first impressions of Downey were of a reprise of his Tony Stark (Iron Man 2008) type character; arrogant and quick witted, but quickly we saw the character of Hank Palmer. The supporting cast was kept tight, but before I finish a word must go to Jeremy Strong(Robot and Frank, 2008), who played the youngest brother, a great performance, understated and calm but very effective.
Overall the movie works on many levels. If I was to say what the film was about I would have to say, “tension” tension between a father and son, a prodigal returned, a high-school jock now raising a family, the ex-girlfriend etc. what makes this film work is that the tension can be overcome. This is seen most through the developing relationship between Hank and his father, both in and out of the Court.
Some people thought it was not as strong as it could be, I however thought it worked even striking one or two raw nerves along the way, go watch it, the direction is strong and the performances nicely delivered. Each aspect of the plot is developed and I’m carefully trying not to give too much away.