The Judge

The awkward moment when Vincent D'Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

The awkward moment when Vincent D’Onofrio asks Robert Downey Jr. for an autograph.

(2014) Drama (Warner Brothers) Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Billy Bob Thornton, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare, Sarah Lancaster, Lonnie Farmer, Matt Riedy, Mark Kiely, Jeremy Holm, Catherine Cummings, Tamara Hickey. Directed by David Dobkin

The relationship between a father and a son is often a difficult thing. Men have a tendency towards competitiveness. Fathers love their sons fiercely and want them to be successful which is, after all, a reflection on them as dads. However, there is a part of every dad who is terrified that the day will come when his son surpasses him as a man. That’s where the difficulty comes in.

Hank Palmer (Downey) is a high-powered defense attorney in Chicago. When asked how he is able to defend the guilty, he quips “the innocent can’t afford me.” If Tony Stark were a defense attorney, he’d be Hank Palmer.

In court one afternoon he gets the devastating news that his mother has passed away suddenly. Not really looking forward to it, he returns to his small town Indiana home for the funeral. There he meets up with his two siblings; older brother Glen (D’Onofrio), once a promising baseball phenom, and younger brother Dale (Strong) who has emotional challenges and usually can be found using a Super 8 camera to record snippets of his life which he edits into films that have no context for anyone other than Dale.

And then there’s Hank’s dad (Duvall), whom Hank refers to as “The Judge” – not Dad, not Pop, not Father but the title. It’s not just Hank defining his father by his chosen career as a dispenser of justice, but also coloring the relationship he has with him. Talk about daddy issues.

The two get along like Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid jostling for space in front of the news camera and Hank is only too happy to return home despite reconnecting with Samantha Powell (Farmiga), an old flame. Hank is in the market at the moment as his marriage to his wife Lisa (Lancaster) has collapsed after her infidelity. His precocious daughter Lauren (Tremblay) is torn between her two parents when it comes to who she wants to live with.

Hank is sitting down in his seat on board the plane when he gets an urgent call from Glen – the Judge has been arrested for a hit and run accident. The victim was Mark Blackwell (Kiely), a man the Judge had put away in prison but had recently been released. The two have an unpleasant history.

With a suave district attorney (Thornton) looking to put the Judge away for good, it will take all of Hank’s skill as a defense lawyer to keep his dad out of jail. But said father isn’t necessarily being the most cooperative defendant ever and there are things that Hank discovers when he begins digging that turn his perception of the case – and his father – on its ear.

Dobkin, whose career thus far has been fairly uneven, has a solid winner here and it starts with the casting. Duvall is one of the world’s best living actors and at 83 he still can deliver a powerful performance. He lends gravitas to the movie as well as a kind of moral certainty. Downey who at one time was on the road to being one of America’s most promising serious actors until his career was briefly derailed, moves back into proving that his Oscar nominations for Chaplin and Tropic Thunder were no flukes. This may be his best performance ever, showing a deeply conflicted man wrestling with the demons of his past and the guilt that accompanies the decisions he’s made. D’Onofrio is the rock of the family in many ways now that his mom is gone and his performance is also very compelling. Farmiga as the girlfriend who got away continues to amass an impressive resume of performances.

Some of the plot points seem to come right out of the TV lawyer handbook and that can be distracting. Not that this is a police procedural in any sense of the concept, but it is definitely something of a legal procedural, although the movie tends to spend less time with the nuts and bolts of preparing a case and more with what happens during a trial. In its favor, the movie’s ending isn’t neat and tidy by any stretch of the imagination. Like most human endeavors, court case rarely end with satisfaction over the outcome by everyone involved.

Dobkin cast this movie extremely well and has given us a very strong courtroom drama that is also portrays a dysfunctional family dynamic which sets this apart from other courtroom dramas. Downey references Atticus Finch and to be sure this is no To Kill a Mockingbird but the performances here make this something worth seeking out for anyone who appreciates strong acting.

REASONS TO GO: Duvall brings gravitas. Downey, D’Onofrio, Farmiga and Thornton all give strong performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Has kind of a TV drama quality to it.
FAMILY VALUES: Foul language with some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first feature release from Team Downey, the production company that Downey and his wife started.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: August: Osage County
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Book of Life

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