REVIEW WRITTEN BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
“The Judge” deftly combines a taut courtroom drama with a carefully-observed depiction of a family fraught with conflict.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) is a brilliant, thoroughly cynical trial attorney. When his well-heeled clients are charged with white collar crimes, he gets them off through his masterful practice of legal legerdemain. Hank is also a self-absorbed narcissist, who is involved in a nasty battle for custody of his seven-year old daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay).
Hank grew up in Carlinville, a fictitious hamlet in southern Indiana. He is estranged from his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), who autocratically presides over the town’s wood-paneled courtroom. Even when Hank graduated law school first in his class, Judge Palmer dad pointedly didn’t deign to attend. As a consequence of this contentious relationship and his general disdain for the provincial bumpkins in his hometown, Hank hasn’t visited there for decades. However, when his mother dies, Hank returns to Carlinville to attend her funeral.
How detached is Judge Palmer from his son? At the reception following the funeral, Judge Palmer warmly embraces those in attendance. However, when Hank approaches him, Judge Palmer extends a stiff handshake. This is augmented with a perfunctory acknowledgement that his mother would have appreciated that he came. The vignette epitomizes how far apart the two are and how hurt Hank is by his father’s undisguised hostility.
As the film unspools, we learn more about the family dynamics. Hank’s older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), is a former star schoolboy athlete. Following a successful pitching performance by Glen, an inebriated sixteen-year old Hank was driving him to a victory celebration. Hank crashed the car. Glen’s pitching arm is permanently damaged. He can’t throw a 90-mile an hour fastball anymore.
Glen’s athletic accomplishments were a source of great pride for Judge Palmer. Now, Glen has been reduced to working in an auto supplies store. Judge Palmer has never forgiven Hanks for subverting Glen’s prospects for a career in major league baseball.
Meanwhile, Hank’s developmentally disabled younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), still lives in the family homestead. He is obsessed with recording everything that takes place on his video camera.
The visiting Hank meets an attractive law student, Carla (Leighton Meester), who’s spending her summer working at a local diner. The next thing you know they’re engaged in a passionate lip lock in a public telephone booth. Later, Hank discovers that Carla is the daughter of his former flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). Not sufficiently icky? Guess who Carla’s biological father is? This is yet another complication to Hank’s unresolved relationship with Samantha. He departed town, years before, leaving her in the lurch.
All of this is contextual backdrop for the principal story line. Judge Palmer is a gavel-slamming judge, who reflexively doles out harsh sentences and dispenses patronizing remarks to litigants. He’s a former alcoholic, has been abstinent for twenty-nine years.
In the aftermath of his wife’s death, Judge Palmer fell off the wagon. He’s in the liquor store, purchasing some booze to drown his sorrows. There, he sees a mean-spirited redneck, Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), who just got released from prison after a twenty year stint. The man had brutally killed his girlfriend after Judge Palmer has meted out an atypically lenient sentence for a prior offense. The latter adjudication looms as the singular error during his forty-two years on the bench. While bicycling home from the liquor store, Blackwell is killed in a hit and run accident.
The following day, Sheriff’s Deputy Hanson, (Balthazar Getty), discovers new dents in Judge Palmer’s car. Is it a coincidence or has the law-abiding judge resorted to vigilante justice to atone for a prior error on the bench? When traces of the victim’s blood are found on the Judge Palmer’s car, he is charged with murder.
Wouldn’t it make sense for Judge Palmer to hire his own son, Hank, an accomplished criminal defense attorney to represent him? Alas, he is so consumed with deep-seated animus towards his prodigal son that he makes an irrational decision. He hires a local attorney (Dax Shepard), who works principally as an antique dealer. This inept bumbler is clearly no match for Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), the state prosecutor assigned to the case. Will Judge Palmer swallow his pride and hire his vastly more qualified son?
Taking a break from portraying the titular superhero in the “Iron Man” franchise and “The Avengers” spin off, Downey reminds viewers of what an extraordinary screen presence he is. Downey captures the essence of a glib barrister, who is deeply pained by his father’s disapproval. It is hard to imagine anyone else dispensing the character’s sardonic dialogue with such panache. Of course, the Academy Award-winning Duvall is a perfect foil for Downey as a crotchety judge, who may be harboring a few secrets. The real surprise here is Billy Bob Thornton. Previously, he’s turned in memorable performances as a homicidal simpleton in “Sling Blade,” and as an alcohol-swilling, expletive-dispensing, dyspeptic protagonist in “Bad Santa,” a persona, which he reprised for the remake of “Bad News Bears.” In “The Judge,” Thornton displays an atypical restraint. In courtroom confrontations, this proves an effective counterpoint to Downey’s histrionics.
Director, David Dobkin, is known for frivolous comedies like “Shanghai Knights,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Fred Claus,” and “The Change-Up.” He seems like an unlikely choice to helm a serious drama like, “The Judge.” Nevertheless, Dobkin acquits himself quite well, delivering a work, which is both dramatically and intellectually engaging.
An examination of the screenplay by Nick Schenk (“Gran Torino”) and neophyte, Bill Dubuque, reveals some serious holes. Nevertheless, courtesy of a fascinating set of issues and exceptionally fine acting, you can enter a verdict on favor of “The Judge.”
***1/2 R (for language including some sexual references) 141 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.