After suffering through a summer of rife with less than mediocre, moviegoers can now look forward to the time of year when Hollywood begins releasing the films that may be contenders in the annual Academy Awards race. “Gone Girl” already is being mentioned as a viable candidate for best picture, and its star, Ben Affleck, is an early frontrunner in the best-actor category.
However, if I were a gambler (I’m not.), I would place a bet that both Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. will be among those mentioned for possible nominations as best actor for their superb work in “The Judge.” Acting performances just don’t get any better than those delivered by these two incredibly talented actors in this highly entertaining film.
Henry “Hank” Palmer is a high-priced, cocky Chicago defense attorney who hasn’t been back to his hometown of Carlinville, Ind., in 20 years, despite the fact that his entire family still lives there. When we first meet Hank, he has an argument with opposing counsel in restroom at the courthouse, and we get an immediate read on him when his opponent asks him, “How does it feel, Hank, knowing that every person you defend is guilty?”
Hank thinks for a moment and then replies, “It’s fine. Innocent people can’t afford me.”
Before the court proceedings reconvene, Hank gets a voice mail message from his brother Glen telling him that his mother has died.
After being granted a continuance in the case, Hank goes home to pack for his trip to Carlinville, and we quickly learn that he and his wife, Lisa (Sarah Lancaster), will soon be getting a divorce and that a custody battle over their daughter, Laruen (Emma Tremblay), is inevitable. After bidding Lisa a nasty goodbye, Hank sets off for his hometown, which is the last place he wants to be.
When Hank arrives in Carlinville, he immediately goes to the funeral home and meets his two brothers, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Dale (Jeremy Strong), and it doesn’t us long to deduce that the Palmers are not a happy family. Glen is a local businessman who had his hopes of being a professional athlete dashed years ago in an automobile accident, and Dale suffers from a slight mental impairment. And the reason Hank has not returned home in so long is that he had a falling out with his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Duvall), who has been dispensing justice in Carlinville for 42 years. Hank’s first meeting with his father after 20 years is a cold one to say the least. Here’s the way Hank describes it to Glen.
“At the wake he (the judge) shakes hands with me while he hugs everyone else. This family is a fucking Picasso painting.”
The day after the funeral Hank is getting in his car leave for home when he notices damage to the front of his father’s car, but he heads for the airport anyway. But before his plane takes off, he gets a phone call informing him that the judge is being investigated in the hit-and-run killing of a man he had once sentenced. Thus, instead of returning to Chicago, Hank stays in Carlinville to defend his father.
Although a riveting trial is at the center of this film, “The Judge” is much more than a legal drama because it’s also a fascinating examination of family dynamics and relationships. Hank and his father really don’t like each other, and the scenes between Duvall and Downey are nothing short of brilliant. The animosity between them goes all the way back to when Hank was a young man, and the rift seems irrevocable.
Complicating Hank’s life even further is his unexpected reunion with his high school sweetheart, Samantha Powell, played superbly by Vera Farmiga. When Hank left town 20 years ago, he virtually deserted her with no explanation, and she stayed in Carlinville, where she now owns and operates a diner.
Another key cast member is the incomparable Billy Bob Thorton, who portrays the prosecuting attorney aptly named Dwight Dickman. He has an axe to grind with Hank, and takes great pleasure in being the prosecutor in the case. Thorton makes his character drip with sleaze and malevolence, and you can see he revels in his part when he tells Hank, “You’re a shined up wooden nickel, Mr. Palmer. I’m going to impale your client on a first-degree murder charge. And you get a front row seat.”
Unlike so many shallow films these days, “The Judge” offers a number of complex characters with myriad personal problems and assorted skeletons in their closets. The acting in the film is consistently outstanding across the board, and the film also offers an interesting insight into what it’s like to return to your hometown after a prolonged absence. In the film’s production notes Downey explained what he liked about the plot.
“What I love about this story is the incredible sense of place, of going away from home and having to return to face all the things this guy had been avoiding for years, which all come flooding back at once. How failures and successes in life can be perceived so differently by people who are so alike, even if they can’t see it or admit it. And it’s told with a lot of twists and surprises and humor. To me, it really feels like a 21st century version of what I consider classic filmmaking.”
Downey also offered an interesting analysis of Hank.
“He’s a pretty shut-down guy. He is in his life mentally and physically, but not emotionally; he’s in complete flight from the ramifications of the way he’s behaved emotionally. He is also very accustomed to winning, and a lot of his identity is tied up in that, in his profession, but that doesn’t matter to anyone else. And of course the fact that his father is a judge and Hank’s a big time defense attorney says a lot about him.
“Hank is under tremendous pressure, and he just keeps being handed more and more weight and becomes less and less confident, which is not a place he’s used to being, not a feeling he likes at all. When he is certain he’s right, no one will listen; when he’s not so sure, everyone is looking to him for answers. Every day he has to jump through some sort of flaming hoop. I’d never really played a part that had so much to do with salvation and redemption, and that was one of the greatest challenges and joys of playing Hank.”
Also in the production notes Duvall took a look inside his character.
“He has many contradictions, like we all do in life. He’s a family-oriented guy, and he loves his sons, but he always left the showing of affection to his wife, and now she’s gone. So he’s very deficient when it comes to relating to them on his own, particularly Hank. They’ve had no contact for years; everything went through Hank’s mother, so they don’t have a way of interacting. And the Judge has never really forgiven Hank for something that happened in the past — or if he has, he can’t admit it, not even to himself, I’d suspect. So he gave me a lot of interesting things to work with, to find within myself.”
From the time I first saw the trailers for “The Judge,” I really was eager to see it because of the great cast and because it is a legal drama. And although I really enjoyed it, several reasons (in addition to its running time of 141 minutes) prevented me from giving it the perfect score I thought it would earn. In the first place, I thought it failed to develop the schism between Henry and his father fully enough. We know that Hank had a troubled youth, but I wanted more specifics about it.
My main problem with the movie, however, is the character of Dale, whose mental affliction never is clearly defined, but even more than that I had a problem with his naïveté being used as a source of humor. I just thought this was in poor taste.
This being said, I still recommend “The Judge” because it offers some of the finest acting you will see on the silver screen and because it offers an intriguing look into the lives of some sorely damaged characters. Therefore my final verdict is a judicially judicious eight. And yes, I probably will watch it again.