With Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio. Written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. Directed by David Dobkin. Rated R for language including some sexual references. 141 minutes.
There’s no question that fathers and sons have complex relationships. That idea is what is at the heart of THE JUDGE. It’s dressed up as a courtroom drama, and there’s plenty of legal jockeying for position, but in the end it’s about family. Surrounded by a top-notch supporting cast, this is an acting duel between Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall. The result is a draw, which is another way of saying that the audience wins.
Downey plays Hank Palmer, a big-city criminal attorney who specializes in getting guilty people off the hook. Ask how he feels about all his clients being criminals he points out, “Innocent people can’t afford me.” He’s slick and smart and knows all the angles. At the start of the story he has to return to his small town Indiana home because his mother has passed away.
This not only means having to deal with his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) who has remained behind, but his sweet mentally challenged younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong). The person he barely speaks to is his father Joseph (Duvall), a long-sitting judge and a pillar of the community. There is a wall between them that neither shows any interest in breaking down.
Hank can’t wait to get out but then he gets a call. His father has been arrested and the charge is vehicular homicide. The Judge has run down someone who once appeared in his court. Worse, he has no memory of the incident whatsoever. Reluctant to have his son defend him, the story is set up so that’s precisely what happens. Billy Bob Thornton shows up as the ruthless prosecutor who has his own history with Hank.
As the story unfolds we not only learn about the backstory of the characters and why they are who they have become, but we see that Hank and his father are a lot more alike than either would care to admit. Both of them are smart, proud, and stubborn, afraid to show their emotions but are able to do so unexpectedly. When Hank’s young daughter comes to visit he warns her that her grandfather, whom she has never met, is likely to be cold and stern. Instead he turns into a doting grandpa who delights in his granddaughter, leaving Hank baffled at this side of his father that he did not believe existed.
Duvall, at 83, is still an actor who can command the screen. The Judge can be angry or vulnerable, stiff or loving, generous or unfeeling. He seems to have no understanding of why Hank is estranged and therefore is incapable of doing anything about it. Downey, for all his flamboyant turns as Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes, has grown into a serious presence. One can easily see how Hank can dominate a courtroom and be the sort of loving father he wishes he had had, while we get clues as to the ways he has held himself back. His scenes with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga) show him to be a man who thinks of himself as open but is afraid of letting his guard down.
“The Judge” is the sort of grown-up movie that we might hope to see as a matter of course. It may or may not make ten-best lists or get award nominations, but it’s solid, engaging story featuring two performances that make the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time fly by.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.