I like a character-driven film even more than a film with a good plot. Happily for viewers, The Judge offers both: it's a satisfying courtroom whodunit encased in a family drama portrayed by two powerhouse actors who convey the complex, competitive, and often painful relationship between a father and a son.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is one of those clever, conniving, cutthroat attorneys who put lawyers at the bottom of the list of most-trusted occupations. When he asks for a continuation on a difficult case because his mother has died, the prosecutor asks cynically, "How many times has your mother died this year?"
The truth is, only once. Hank's mother has indeed died, and he leaves immediately, alone, to attend her funeral. He has not visited his family since leaving home after high school.
Hank's father, Joseph (Robert Duvall) is the film’s title judge. He approaches the law in a way opposite to his son’s — not as a game to be manipulated but as a protective force to be honored and upheld.
Hank's first stop when he arrives in town is his father's courtroom, where he sits in the gallery unnoticed to watch his father at work adjudicating a case. Clearly he admires and has been shaped by his father. He even followed in his father's career path.
Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips.
Nevertheless, when Hank shows up for the funeral, Joseph can barely contain his disdain, and Hank can barely control his eagerness to get away. We learn that Hank hasn't been home in 20 years, yet he had stayed in contact with his mother (by phone) and was close enough to confide in her the most intimate part of his life — his failing marriage. Why? What happened? Of course we blame the harsh, domineering father. But when Joseph is arrested for a hit-and-run that occurs on the night after the funeral, Hank jumps from the first-class seat in which he is preparing to fly out of town and rushes to oversee the judge's defense.
Hank hates his father bitterly, yet he clearly admires him, loves him, and can't stand the thought of him going to prison. As other details about Hank's childhood emerge we realize that something has happened between them that was so deeply scarring that neither of them has been able to address it directly. It holds them together even as it drives them apart.
Director David Dobkin reveals all of this to us in flashes and snippets — not all at once, because the characters themselves can't face it all at once, and he wants us to feel their aversion. He wants us to feel how hard it is for them to talk about it or even to remember it.
A film like this could easily devolve into sentimental drivel, but it does not, largely because of the skills of its actors. Downey and Duvall are giants of nuance; we read more in their eyes than we hear from their lips. Jeremy Strong as the mentally disabled brother Dale and Vincent D'Onofrio as the older brother Glen who remained in the small hometown to hold the family together while Hank went on to defense attorney glory also deliver powerful performances.
At almost 2 1/2 hours, The Judge is a bit long, but if you have father-child issues of your own that deal with judging and being judged (and who doesn't?), you will find this film an absorbing and compelling opportunity for reflection and catharsis.