I missed The Judge during its brief theatrical run, but my wife went and saw it with one of our best friends. When she got home and I asked for her verdict (no pun intended) and what she said made a mark. “I absolutely loved it; but you can never see this movie, it will ruin you.” Standing in a stunned silence for a moment or two, I then became resolute that not only did I want to see it but I wanted to see it with her (out of some empty gesture of toughness).
The Judge follows Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.- RDJ) a big-time Chicago lawyer, called to return home after several decades of self-exile to mourn the loss of his mother. When his estranged father Joseph (Robert Duvall), the local Judge, is implicated in a murder he steps in to his defence. Watching this director Dave Dobkin and writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque’s story about legacy grief and that the despite the pain, harsh truths are the only path toward redemption was able to tap into some of those dark recesses and fears about life without forgiveness and closure.
Hank must have been custom written for RDJ. He’s the kind of performer that relishes Hank’s variety of modes. There’s a way that he’s able to assault his foes with rapid fire word evisceration that treads the knife’s edge of clever and being a dick. In quiet moments he exudes a sorrow from carrying a lifetime of gestures to make up for his youthful mistakes that have fallen on the deaf ears of the one person’s opinion that mattered to him. In the courtroom setting he exudes that killer instinct of a man accustomed to manipulating jurors and intimidating his opponents. As a contrast though, whenever he’s around his developmentally disabled brother Dale (played by Jeremy Strong), he’s got untold patience and a sweet understanding even though his unintentional insensitivity pokes and prods his father and brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). Like all truly great leads, he takes centre stage and lays the platform for his supporting cast to shine.
Duvall’s Joseph Palmer or Judge is magnificent. His judgements though aren’t reserved to the courtroom, they echo through his home and the lives of his family. It’s a raw, vulnerable performance that’s like watching a once fearsome lion lose the strength that kept him in the alpha position for so long. It’s a character that in lesser hands could have been reduced to cantankerous exterior, soft interior. Duvall though conveys the constant wrestle of being defined and haunted by the decisions that he’s made. No-one is infallible; Duvall refuses to accept that it’s the case.
D’Onofrio’s Glen is a constant reminder of Hank’s youthful failures, and the conscience of the film. One act of youthful stupidity contorts the characters like they’re forced to wear chain mail. D’Onofrio plays Glen with sweetness and a temper that rears up when his younger brother, who is so much like their father, disrespects or challenges the rank dynamic of the family unit. Strong’s Dale is delivered in a tactfully measured way. You become so accustomed to seeing characters that are mentally challenged being portrayed extremely, rather than someone who has a learning disability or some kind of arrested intellectual development. His ignorance is blissful, and relieves some tense family moments.
Dax Shepard’s C.P. Kennedy, the Judge’s first choice of representation is so far out of his depth that he becomes the unwilling referee between to two courtroom prize fighters. Vera Farmiga is a blast from Hank’s past as Samantha Powell, the love he left behind as he got the hell out of dodge, so-to-speak. Instead of pining for long lost love, she’s a business owner and extremely successful woman. She’s good at cutting through Hank’s ‘big-time lawyer’ aura and getting to who Hank is. Finally I’d like to mention Billy Bob Thornton’s Dwight Dickham the prosecuting lawyer brought in to convict Duvall’s Judge. He’s not a maniacal, unreasonable jerk. He’s a man who has seen Hank’s talent for keeping guilty people away from conviction and has made it his personal mission to ensure that the Judge face the same fierce justice that he’s been residing over for thirty years. He’s an anti-bad ‘bad guy.’
Director Dave Dobkin wants you to embrace the characters in their grief, or anxiety and on occasion you feel like you’re waltzing in their orbit. For example, there’s a scene where Hank must come to terms with his mother’s death, while he’s in the middle of an argument with his soon to be ex-wife. Dobkin drops us into the eye of Hank’s storm, despite the swirl of raw emotion around him he retreats inward to this quiet zone. It’s such a great technique to give you an impression into what the character is feeling, but to replicate that very real feeling of numbness as a wave of bad news washes over you. There’s also a great use of home movies to give you the nostalgic windows into the good times, but thanks to Dale (Strong), some of the family’s darkest hours. Instead of standing around memory camp fires for warmth, they transport you back to the bleakest moments.
The Judge is like a lightning rod for those dark thoughts, fears, and chinks in your armour that the tighter you tense up, the more you’re exposed. And if that wasn’t enough, the twisted knife of the entire film is the end credits song, Willie Nelson’s cover of Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist. ’ Just when you think you’re going to be able to keep your composure, you’re reduced to uncontrollable blubbering.
The Judge, like its characters, has flaws. However, even with my guard up, it picked me apart in ways that I wasn’t prepared for.
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: David Dobkin
Written by: Nick Schenk (story/screenplay) and Bill Dubuque (and story also co-written by David Dobkin)
Robert Downey Jr. .. Hank Palmer
Robert Duvall .. Joseph Palmer
Vera Farmiga … Samantha Powell
Billy Bob Thornton … Dwight Dickham
Vincent D’Onofrio … Glen Palmer
Jeremy Strong… Dale Palmer
Dax Shepard … C.P. Kennedy
Leighton Meester … Carla Powell
Ken Howard …Judge Warren
Emma Tremblay …Lauren Palmer
Balthazar Getty … Deputy Hanson