D: David Dobkin / 141m
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton, Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare
Defence attorney Hank Palmer (Downey Jr) has made a name for himself by getting acquittals for some of the guiltiest defendants ever brought before the bench. When his mother dies unexpectedly it means his returning home after twenty years and dealing with his estranged father, Joseph (Duvall), who’s the local judge. On the day of the funeral, Hank is reunited with his high school sweetheart, Samantha (Farmiga) but he remains unable to bridge the gap that keeps himself and his father at a distance from each other. Later that night, Joseph takes a drive to a nearby gas station to get some groceries. When Hank gets ready to leave the next morning, he notices that Joseph’s car is damaged, as if it’s hit something.
Before his flight can take off, Hank hears from his older brother Glen (D’Onofrio) that the police are investigating a fatal hit and run from the night before and are talking to Joseph at the station. Against his better judgment, Hank gets off his flight and heads to the station where he learns that the man who died was someone the judge had let off years ago only for the man to kill the girl he’d been stalking. When blood is found on Joseph’s car that matches the dead man’s, the police arrest him. Family tensions increase when Joseph decides to appoint local lawyer, inexperienced C.P. Kennedy (Shepard) to represent him instead of Hank. But at his arraignment, where he’s committed for trial, the judge realises his mistake and asks Hank to take over his defence.
It emerges that Joseph has increasing memory problems and he can’t remember anything after he left the gas station and had to make a detour due to a flooded road. As Hank begins to build his case, Joseph proves unhelpful and the two clash repeatedly. At the same time, Hank learns that Samantha has a daughter, Carla (Meester), and that he might be the father. With family issues coming to the boil over events that happened twenty years ago, along with a special prosecutor (Thornton) being appointed to try the case, Hank finds himself under growing pressure to find a way to meet all the demands being made of him, and solve the puzzle of what happened the night his father went for groceries.
A family drama wrapped up in a courtroom drama, The Judge is the kind of movie that looks glossy, feels important (on its own level), and sounds impressive but is actually none of those things, being instead a kind of kitchen sink drama where so much is thrown in and very little is as compelling as it first appears. Take, for example, the case of Hank’s brother Glen, who was a promising baseball player until an accident caused by Hank ended his career before it began. It’s an issue that Joseph brings up a few times and is one of the sources of their estrangement, but neither of them have ever thought to ask Glen how he feels about it all (he’s actually made his peace with it but we don’t find this out until the end).
Likewise, the issue of whether or not Joseph deliberately killed the ex-offender is of secondary importance in comparison to the movie’s need to have him and Hank reconcile – and which takes place in the courtroom, and with everyone sitting back and letting them show that they really do care about each other etc. etc. But will the audience care by this point, having already sat through over two hours of undercooked “woe is me” dramatics? Because therein lies the movie’s biggest problem: Hank is too much the aggrieved party. His marriage is heading for divorce, his colleagues across the courtroom floor have no time for him, he can’t make his relationship with Samantha work, he doesn’t understand his father at all, and he believes too much in his own talent to have an inkling of what humility is all about. In short, he’s an arrogant prick, and even though he’s presented as charming and a bit of a “good” bad boy, and all this is meant to be attractive, especially with Downey Jr in the role, it’s a character we’ve seen too many times before to end up rooting for.
The judge’s motives remain muddled throughout, as he wavers between wanting to be honest and upstanding, and maintaining his legacy after forty-two years on the bench. Hank is a chip off the old block and all the arrogance can be seen in the way in which Joseph conducts himself, cleaving to his own idea of what’s right and wrong, and to hell with anyone else’s opinion. The phrase, “two peas in a pod”, is perfect for them, but it doesn’t make for affecting drama, and there’s no tension at all. We know what’s going to happen from the outset with these two and it involves re-found mutual respect and admiration, and a shared understanding of past events. The movie is one big therapy session and it struggles to rise above the level of a predictable TV Movie of the Week.
Against this, Downey Jr and Duvall put in credible enough performances but fail to energise the material, and spar off each other so predictably it’s like filming by numbers. Farmiga and D’Onofrio fare better but then their roles are smaller and they have less focus on them. Thornton’s role is a step above a cameo but he makes the most of it even if it is a reprise of so many other roles where he’s had to be both smug and menacing.
Dobkin assembles things with a nod to almost every other small-town, local-boy-makes-good-then-comes-back-to-confront-the-issues-that-drove-him-away drama we’ve ever seen, and signposts pretty much every plot development with the excitement of someone who can’t wait to show off his next scene. Carlinville is a pretty town, shot beautifully by Janusz Kaminski, but what we see of it is mostly restricted to the judge’s house, the courtroom and Samantha’s diner. It’s a slightly claustrophobic effect and is rarely betrayed by a long shot. Thomas Newman’s score provides standard support for the proceedings, but like so many other aspects of the movie, is never compelling enough to elevate matters.
Rating: 5/10 – competently made but lacking on so many levels – emotionally, dramatically, as a thriller – The Judge is one of those ideas that sounds great on paper but proves largely underwhelming once it’s transferred to the screen; if you’ve got actors of this calibre in front of the lens and they can’t make it work, then maybe it’s a movie that should’ve remained as just a great idea.