Review: THE JUDGE (2014)

We’ve seen it before, high flyer returns to his childhood home and remembers why he left in the first place. We’ve also seen countless John Grisham-evoking courtrooms on the silver screen. But like all the best legal dramas, it’s not the jury’s verdict that reveals the most truths…

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The Judge stars two Robert Ds (Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall), Duvall as the titular ‘Judge’ Palmer who has been the keeper of justice in the small town of Carlinville, Indiana. Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, his estranged middle son who is now a big-shot (if over-worked) lawyer in Chicago. Returning home for this mother’s funeral, curt greetings and a cold handshake between the two leads hint at a lifetime of resentment and animosity. When his father is accused of killing a former convict who he himself sent to prison in a hit-and-run accident, it turns to Hank to represent his curmudgeonly father in court.

Inevitably, Hank comes face-to-face with the shadows of his past: his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga) and his two brothers played by Vincent D’Onofrio (who can give powerful performances in his sleep…probably) and Jeremy Strong. The film dedicates a sizeable portion of the running time to the tension-filled Palmer family before spending much of the latter half in the courtroom. Watching Palmer and Son struggle to put their deep-set grudges aside and work through defence strategies and dodge touchy subjects like familial landmines (which do eventually explode- big time) gives the film an On Golden Pond sheen over the whole thing.   The generation gap, how to cope with a parent who has never loved you in the way you thought you deserved and what to do when you find your roles are suddenly reversed are just some of the themes touched upon during The Judge.

The dialogue-heavy script is a shoe-in role for Downey Jr. who has always skirted around being know-it-all wordsmith in many of his roles, and here he relishes in it. A snake in the court and mouse in his father’s home, he eventually stands up to the family demons that have cursed his relationship with his father for long enough during his final interrogation at the witness stand. Emotional and surprising, Duvall and Downey act their hearts out. A scene in which Hank cares for his incontinent father in the bathroom is a stark and saddening but refreshingly honest scene in a slick but often predictable film.  Displaying such tact, it’s hard to believe that the director (David Dobkin) past work included Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up

Special mention goes to supporting actor Billy Bob Thornton who has to have one of the best introductions for a character in a film this year. All I can say is, wherever he got that from, I want one!

Sometimes clichéd but rarely dull, The Judge is a well-acted  and touching film about the ties that bind and those who break them.

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