Movie Review: The Judge
Director: David Dobkin
Reviewed: 11 July 2015
The Judge, the latest film starring Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr., feels like a book with the ending missing or a film missing a reel. Somewhere inside of this glossy, professional-looking production with a stellar cast, the story has gone awry and lost me. I'm not sure what happened, and as a legal thriller, a character study, a family or father-son story, it kind of fails on all levels. I think I was trying to out-think it, casting its reach far deeper than it was prepared to go. It seems to get stuck in its own telling of an estranged son and imperious father, smashed up with a criminal case that ends up involving both.
Downey Jr. plays a high-powered defense attorney Hank Palmer in Chicago whose home life is crumbling due to his apparent neglect of his wife, disinterest in his daughter, and his tendency to work himself too hard. When called back to his Indiana hometown for a family crisis, Hank finds himself at odds, again, with his father, Judge Palmer (Duvall) while trying to piece together the life he left behind, including his relationships with his two brothers Glenn and Dale (Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and a past flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga). Upon trying to leave, he finds The Judge embroiled in a charges of murder against a former criminal whom he sentenced. Hank assumes the duties of defense counsel as secrets are revealed, facades removed, and the stakes raised immensely for father and son to heal.
Whew. There is a lot here. The opening shots reveal the symbolic nature of a baseball glove tossed upon a dresser, gardenias sprouting in the yard, a flickering home movie taken from an old-timey movie camera. Yet the film struggles to depict its set of three brothers and The Judge in believable ways. Duvall is compulsively watchable, and I appreciated how the film attempted to depict his pride coming up against his fear of losing his memory (and the possible legal implications on his rulings if proven so). Billy Bob Thornton delivers a strong performance as an opposing lawyer with a grudge against Hank's reckless lawyer past, and Vera Farmiga deserves more than her underwritten character. I really thought it was building towards some sort of shock ending with a twist, but no. Nothing like that here. I'm not even clear about the crime in question and what exactly happened. So it cannot really be a legal thriller, and it doesn't really commit to being a relationship movie. So what is it? I'm not really sure, but I'm all for seeing Robert Downey Jr. act in films outside of franchise extravaganzas; I like watching him act, even if he struggles with figuring out the core of who Hank Palmer is. That's something that the film's director and three screenwriters could not do. To see it is to see probably one of the last screen performances of Robert Duvall, a legend of cinema who started out as Boo Radley, and despite what I take to be a sympathy nomination (or just an acknowledgement of how consistently great he always is), no one will include The Judge among his greatest performances in The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Apostle, among others. I really thought there was going to be more to this story.