It’s dramatic but not a weepy kind of dramatic or a depressing kind of dramatic. It’s more like a compassion vs. stubbornness kind of dramatic. Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a successful lawyer from the Big City, is suddenly called home to Indiana for his mother’s funeral. It’s quickly stated that there is quite a bit of tension between him and his grumpy old father, Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall). Things get even more on edge when the day after the funeral, Judge Palmer is called in and questioned about a local murder. It would appear that a man was struck by a car the night before and – what is even more baffling – his blood is on the hood of the Judge’s car. Hank, convinced or not of his father’s innocence, is now the only person who can defend his case. But years of pent-up emotional baggage keep Hank from wanting to help and keep his father from wanting to be helped.
Hitting theatres between Canadian and American Thanksgivings, The Judge speaks volumes about explosive family confrontations. “Like father like son” isn’t always a positive expression, especially when it means there are double the number of stubborn goats in the house. Hank and the Judge are constantly fighting for control, whether their metaphorical arena is on the side of the road, at family gatherings, or outside during a tornado. I almost got the feeling that the tornado ripping through Indiana heard their argument and backed off, tiptoeing out of the way like a kid whose parents start fighting at the dinner table. There are several dramatic outbursts like this one with such furiously escalating emotion that both actors are driven to tears of rage. Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall are both exceptional in The Judge, hinting at a lifetime of missteps and absent apologies through endless guilty glares. Their emotional violence and occasional periods of frustrating weakness are a wonder to behold.
These two Roberts crash around the film like two rams claiming ownership of the mountain, but in the background stands a firm cast of supporters and a mellow Bon Iver score. Hank’s two brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong), are the trunk and the leaf of their dysfunctional family tree. Glen is the noble big brother who will stand strong for the family, whatever it costs, while Dale, the slighty-slower-than-average younger brother, has a spirit of innocence like none of the others. The two of them act as buffers, calming Hank’s emotional turmoil with kind words and hugs. Without them the film would be a lot of screaming and very few touching memories.
The only awkward thumb in The Judge, I would say, is the sub-plot with the ex-girlfriend. It’s nice to remind the viewers that Hank once had a life in Indiana, but aside from a few old-flame moments I don’t think her character has much pull. She is there to break up the drama of the courtroom (like a personified recess) but, sadly, doesn’t accomplish much else.
The Judge is, at its foundation, a courtroom drama, but it’s also a film about family. A son’s rocky alliance with his father mixed with piles of damning evidence and a client who doesn’t want to be defended all amount to a mountain of feelings that cut right to your inner child. Hank, as hard as he is, is still a relatable character, and Downey Jr. ensures that you’re touched by whatever pain his character is going through. The Judge is non-stop drama worthy of an 8.5/10, but be sure to prepare yourself for a heavy 2.5 hour hike.