Director: David Dobkin
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton
Robert Downey Jr. is the fucking man, no question. In the last decade at least, he hasn’t put a foot wrong, everything he does turns to gold. In Robert Downey Jr.’s case, I mean this very literally; topping Forbes’ list of the highest paid actors in Hollywood for the past two years. It pays to be Iron-Man. Alongside him in ‘The Judge’, is Robert Duvall, Oscar nominated for his support role in this film. All sounds pretty good, right? But that is all I expected – a pretty good film, a slightly-above-average courtroom drama with a couple of star vehicles to raise the profile. I was not prepared for such an emotional and gripping experience and I paid the price in human tears.
When hot-shot city lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey Jr) receives news of his mother’s death, he must return to his childhood home in Indiana for the funeral. He leaves behind his young daughter and a failing marriage, to visit his estranged family, but when his father, the respected, revered Judge Palmer (Duvall) becomes the suspect in a hit and run case, Hank begrudgingly commits himself to saving the family. The victim is Mark Blackwell, a man Judge Palmer once set free, only for him to go on to drown a 16 year old girl. With a very clear motive and incriminating evidence, everyone points the finger of blame at The Judge. Due to a debilitating cancer however, Judge Palmer cannot be sure exactly what happened that night, but he is certain he committed the crime. Hank is put in a difficult position, where he must defend the most awkward client of his career – his stubborn father – a man who wants to be convicted, against the clinical lawyer Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). Away from the courtroom, Hank tries to deal with tensions in the Palmer household, as well as attempting to salvage his own marriage and a complicated transition back in to the community in Indiana.
Robert Downey Jr. just can’t help being a little bit funny, all the time. In reality, I can only assume, that he is just as funny, likeable and charming as he appears to be in his many different roles. But you should forget everything you think you know about RDJ. His portrayal of Hank Palmer is enigmatic, yes, but a more powerful and emotive performance than ever before. Robert number two, Mr Duvall, is fantastic as the vulnerable, deteriorating Judge Palmer. He conveys perfectly the distressing effects of his horrible illness, whilst maintaining a nostalgic sense of power and authority as the head of his family. In impressive post-Fargo form, Billy Bob Thornton is the villain of the play, sort of. Prosecuting lawyer Dwight Dickham is ruthless but undeniably fair, a calm man with a cold and calculated edge, all of which Thornton expertly communicates.
This film draws so many similarities to other films yet remains rather fresh and original. The family dynamic of the dysfunctional Palmer brothers is reminiscent of the Bondurant brothers in ‘Lawless’, with brutish Glen at the head, the shrewd Hank in command and poor Dale trailing in their wake. It is the autistic Dale however, with a penchant for home movies, who brings to life some of the more poignant and upsetting moments in the film. The happy memories contained in his short films only serve to highlight the tragedy of the family’s current plight and exacerbate the tensions. There is also clear reference to the classic ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, with Hank placed in a similar dilemma to that of Atticus Finch, where he must represent a ‘guilty man’ with a heartfelt defiance against a hostile community.
There are so many moments of heart-wrenching emotion throughout the film, moments which are skimmed over rather quickly, giving you no time to dwell on the unfortunate events. I consider this an interesting and powerful message from the filmmakers, in terms of the way we deal with grief and tragedy. Initially, I wanted to watch ‘The Judge’ alone, as I didn’t think anyone else would be too interested and worse, I didn’t think the film would be that good. Turns out, I made the right call; after all crying in front of people isn’t too much fun and this film is so fucking sad, I guarantee you will cry a few times. ‘The Judge’ is upsetting and uplifting in equal measure, a beautifully composed film, crowned by outstanding performances from all involved. Everyone should see this film, but watch it alone if you are a self-conscious weeper.