October 24, 2014
"The Judge" in the title refers to Judge Joseph Palmer, a tough no-nonsense magistrate who presides in a small Indiana town courtroom. When his wife Mary passes away, he is reunited with his long-estranged son, the hot-shot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer. Old wounds though have not yet healed. The day after the burial, Judge Palmer was accused of killing a particularly vicious murderer he once sent to prison. Will this case bring father and son closer together, or will it just drive them further apart?
Watching Robert Duvall act never feels like you are watching an acting performance. He is always so natural and realistic in anything he does. Those scenes showing his physical disabilities were so difficult to watch because they looked so real. His mental toughness, his irascible behavior, his senior moments, his judicial integrity were all portrayed on point. I think this may be the role which might win him his second Oscar. Duvall has had three nominations for Best Actor, and won for "Tender Mercies" way back 1982. He also had three nominations for Best Supporting Actor, two of which were for classics like "The Godfather" and "Apocalypse Now".
We are used to seeing Robert Downey, Jr. as a pugnacious smart-ass, like his Tony Stark or his Sherlock Holmes. You can add Hank Palmer to that list. However, those quieter moments he had with his father and two brothers at home and those with his precocious daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) stood out more for me than his aggressive lawyering scenes in the courtroom.
The supporting actors also did their part to make this film extraordinary. I would cite the performances of Vincent D'Onofrio (as Hank's unfortunate eldest brother Glen) and Jeremy Strong (as their kind mentally-challenged youngest Dale) to be particularly remarkable. Their family dynamics were at the same time traditional and close, as much as they were dysfunctional and fractured. It was these less ostentatious scenes within the Palmer household which make this film special.
Vera Farmiga lends her earthy charms as Hank's high school sweetheart Samantha. Her smart and sexy portrayal makes her a good match for Downey. It was always good to see the pretty face of Leighton Meester even though her role Carla was practically a marked cameo. The intensity of Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham was formidable. The hicktown charm of Dax Shepard made his bumbling character Atty. C.P. Kennedy a welcome respite from the heavy drama.
This is the first major foray into serious drama for director David Dobkin. Previously he only had forgettable light comedies like "Wedding Crashers" and "Shanghai Knights" under his limited belt. "The Judge" elevates him to another level altogether, and will likely be the film he is most remembered for. It took a bit of time for him to tell his story with a 141-minute running time. However, I found it worth every minute he took telling it the way he did. I liked how the story slowly but surely unfolded the way it did.
"The Judge" may drip with sentimentality at times, but I did not mind. We all need a touching film where we can reflect on our own family relationships. I am a sucker for films about fathers and sons, and for films about brothers. like "Legends of the Fall" and "A River Runs Through It". A good cleansing cry at the movies once in a while is not a bad thing. 8/10.