On the Silver Screen – The Judge
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) returns home for his mother’s funeral and finds himself embroiled in a murder trilogy involving his father Joseph (Robert Duvall) as the accused in The Judge and finds himself faced with unpleasant memories as he is forced to reconnect with his family.
The main problem with The Judge is that it lacks a sense of focus on what it really wants to be about. Is it about Hank and Joseph’s fractured relationship? Is it about a family dealing with a loss? Is it a courtroom drama? Is it about Hank reconnecting with an old flame left behind in his home town? Is it about any of the other subplots flying around in this muddled unfocused narrative? The answer is yes and no, it’s about all of these and none of these.
Many of these stories are picked up and dealt with extensively for a little while before being abandoned entirely. The courtroom aspect as well as the relationship between father and son are picked up most often but they are forgotten for large stretches of the film as it meanders around. It really is a shame because the relationship between Joseph and Hank is really well done when it is given time to develop.
It’s the standard estranged connection that goes through a rebirth when they are forced to interact and learn the reasons each had for doing things in the past but it is done very well for the most part. Some of the writing is fairly mundane but the powerhouse performances from Duvall and Downey Jr elevate it to something truly special. Each of these gifted actors match each other perfectly and craft a wonderfully nuanced father/son relationship over the course of the film.
Robert Downey Jr doesn’t stray too far from the expected character that people like to see him play. He has the arrogance of Tony Stark with just enough hubris throughout the film to keep him from becoming unlikeable. Downey Jr’s natural charisma carries through the film and any scene featuring him is absolutely worth watching. He is infinitely believable as a formidable lawyer who embraces a dubious morality to get the job done. A nice touch is that he never really learns that this is a bad thing throughout the narrative, fully committing to getting his father found innocent of a crime he probably did commit.
Robert Duvall turns in a great performance here as a man who has been hardened by years of sentencing people for their various crimes. He adopts a tough approach to raising his children and the death of his wife has caused him to become further detached from his sons who are looking to him for a level of support that he is wholly unable to give. His scenes with Downey Jr are filled with bitterness and resentment that never really lets up throughout the narrative. There is some give towards the end but there’s no real evolution in their relationship. He does have some softer moments when he interacts with his granddaughter but in general he is a bitter and cynical old man.
There are some really powerful moments in the film such as when Hank is helping Joseph retain his dignity when his illness takes a particularly bad turn. It’s a really moving and tragic scene where both actors get to show a level of vulnerability and devotion that can only come from family. Other bonding scenes in the film are done really well too.
Courtroom scenes are few and far between but what the film does have are really good. Hank is clearly a skilled lawyer with lots of skill, knowledge and experience at manipulating juries to do whatever he wants them to. Downey Jr’s charismatic nature makes him a believable trustworthy figure with convincing arguments. His opponent Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) seems to be a suitable opponent for Hank’s skills but doesn’t have much to do beyond be the “enemy” of the film.
To contrast with that the brothers come and go from the narrative without making much of an impact. Vincent D’Onofrio is utterly wasted in this film as most of his scenes are devoted to exposition in one way or another. There’s also a subplot involving implied incest that is awkward at best and pointless at worst, the film would have lost nothing if it had been cut. The running time was considerable and it would have been so easy to cut many of the extraneous elements to focus the narrative on the relationship between Hank and his father.
An uneven and unfocused film that couldn’t really focus on what it wanted to be. The strongest scenes involved Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall playing against each other to impressive effect. Too many subplots drag the narrative into a mess of tangents that should have been cut. Instead of being an overlong film with too much going on it could have been a tightly focused relationship drama with some really good courtroom scenes.