The Judge is directed by David Dobkin who is better known for films like The Change-Up (2011) and Wedding Crashers (2005). The screen writing credits go to Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque – Nick Schenk wrote the script for Gran Torino (2006). The other interesting thing about the film is that it is the first output from production company Team Downey set up by Robert Downey Jnr (who also stars) and his wife. The other key members of the cast are Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Vera Farmiga, and Billy Bob Thornton.
The story revolves around the relationship between Hank Palmer (Downey Jnr) and his father Judge Joesph Palmer (Duvall). The two are polar opposites – Hank is a hot shot defence lawyer in Chicago while Joseph Palmer is a traditional firm but fair judge working in small town Indiana dispensing local justice. Hank receives word that his mum has died so makes his way back to his home town to pay his respects and in doing so is forced to confront the relationship with his father against the backdrop of a car accident that could lead to a murder conviction.
Going into this film I had picked up the views of some movie goers that Downey Jnr was a being a little bit too Tony Stark, the tone of the film was all over the place and the story was unoriginal. By the end I found myself scratching my head because I couldn’t see any of that. If we first deal with the central performances I could understand why the Tony Stark comparison could be made for the first five minutes of the film i.e. the scene in the toilet that features in the trailer. However, to take those few minutes and apply that stereotype to the remainder of the film is unfair.
Robert Downey Jnr is as likable as ever even though his character isn’t the nicest person in the world. Hank Palmer is as flawed as the rest of us and we see the mess his marriage is in, the tension with his father, his love for his daughter and his obvious skill as a lawyer. That being said the performance I really want to talk about is that of Robert Duvall as The Judge in question. He’s fantastic. It’s a performance of integrity and dignity in the face of growing problems for his character, Judge Palmer worries more about his (and the law’s) standing in the local community than his own future.
I also want to deal with the criticism of the story and its lack of originality. Personally I don’t care about that along as it is well told. If I can buy into the world of the film or the characters I’m sold. My view of The Judge is that the story is incidental as this is primarily a character driven film. There are multiple layers to the narrative as Hank has to deal with unresolved relationship issues that he ran away from when he left town. At the heart of it is the relationship between Hank and Joseph. Some of the scenes are highly predictable but there are a few moments when Hank finds his father on the bathroom floor that are raw, tender and funny one after the other. One of the best scenes I have scene in any film this year.
I would like to briefly mention the performance of Jeremy Strong who plays the role of the younger Palmer brother, Dale, a young man with learning difficulties. He plays the most honest character in the film who often says what others just think and brings welcome humour to the movie. I’m not familiar with his work but he has appeared in Lincoln (2012) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012).
This film is a slow burner that gets better and better with the court scenes being used to great effect as they allow the characters to open up to each other in a way they seem unable to in real life. A positive sign for this film is that I didn’t feel the length in any way so I was clearly absorbed in the onscreen action. It looks like it’s going to be in and out of the cinema quickly which is sad as I really enjoyed it.