The Judge (2014)
Directed by David Dobkin
In “The Judge,” writer/director David Dobkin (“R.I.P.D.”) and screenwriters Nick Schenk (“Gran Torino”) and Bill Dubuque (his screenwriting debut) frame a beautiful examination of family. The drama follows Chicago attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), who returns to his reviled small Indiana hometown after the death of his mother. As he reconnects with his estranged family, including his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) – who has long been dead to Hank – he’ll also re-kindle connections with faces from his past. But just as Hank is about to leave, to return to his lavish suburban home in Illinois, his father is questioned in the hit and run of a despicable man he had in his courtroom twenty years ago. What follows is the trial of Hank and Joseph Palmer’s lives.
Robert Downey Jr., one of Hollywood’s biggest (and highest-paid) stars, somehow never manages to let his callous outer shell overshadow the personable character that hides inside. In what seems like the year of meta (see Michael Keaton), Henry Palmer is forced to flash back to RDJ’s own checkered past (including addiction and arrest), which allows RDJ’s dialogue with Duvall to be so moving and real. It always helps when an actor has something so relevant from his/her own past to pull from, and this is the perfect example. Robert Duvall picked up Golden Globe and Oscar nominations for his role, which sees him gracefully (and sometimes not-so-gracefully) enter the world of Hollywood old age. There comes a time when every actor and actress must play the role that admits their inevitable mortality, and, for Duvall, Joseph Palmer is that role. Jessica Tandy in “Driving Miss Daisy,” Christopher Plummer in “Beginners,” Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman in “The Bucket List.” Duvall isn’t afraid to show the dirty side of aging. He may be getting older, but he’s not losing what made him a Hollywood legend. He’s not too old for another Oscar, that’s for damn sure. In smaller roles, Vera Farmiga (as Hank’s old girlfriend, who still lives in their hometown) and Billy Bob Thornton (as the prosecuting attorney trying to get Judge Palmer on murder) are excellent casting choices. Both play their characters with conviction and purpose, even if they don’t get top billing.
I can always tell when an Oscar-winning cinematographer is behind the camera. Janusz Kaminski (“Schindler’s List”) paints a majestic portrait of the courtroom of the American Midwest (actually it’s Plymouth County Courthouse in Plymouth, Massachusetts…oh well). His shots find beauty in everyday life, the way Oscar-winning cinematographers tend to do.
Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, “The Judge” does have a problem with its pace. It is, in my opinion, one of the year’s most wonderfully simple dramatic stories. But after 140 minutes, even I wanted to leave Carlinville, Indiana. Still, “The Judge” harkens back to the simple courtroom dramas of old, and I can be thankful for that.