In my experience with court room dramas, audiences tend to get the wrong impression about what a real court room case is actually like; since movies tend to over dramatize the experience to the point that the outcome becomes a crystal clear (almost cartoonish) cliché. So when I come across a compelling, emotionally turbulent court room film like “The Judge”; imagine my welcomed surprise when I find a movie that cuts right to the heart of the REAL emotional center piece and it’s actually NOT the case itself. People make stories real, correction; REAL people make stories real and everything about this estranged father/son court room conflict is about as real as it gets.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a smart assed lawyer who is in top of his field but at rock bottom when it comes to having decent relationship with his family. Things get further complicated when Palmer’s brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) calls him and says their mother just died. Hank arrives and is forced to deal with his unfeeling father; Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) who is dealing with a murder 1 charge after a late night drive left a man dead. Now Hank must defend his disconnected father and try to save both their careers and futures as father and son.
Normally these kinds of films don’t grab my interest but a good cast can pull you into any story no matter how much reluctance you have built up. The idea of Downey and Duvall stuck as this cold-as-ice; frosty faced son and father relationship is what really sucked me into seeing this movie in the first place. To have a film focus on the dynamics of this estranged relationship requires two great actors who can not only hold their own against each other, but also to devolve into losing their minds and their cools to the point they want to kill each other convincingly on screen. This relationship is the heart and soul of this film and their destructive dysfunctions are the making of true cinematic chemistry.
Once these two were on screen together; you didn’t even need to have them say anything, you could already feel the tension and conflict that brewed between these two men. I admired the film for not pulling back any punches and continuously throwing more gauntlets down for Downey and Duvall to tackle; each one more intense and painful than the last. I genuinely felt the suffering that was being experienced, like you really didn’t know how hard things were going to get or if there was ever going to be any kind of silver lining for the case, for the relationship or either characters individually.
I always admired Downey for being such an unfathomably likeable wise ass and after seeing him remain merged with “Iron Man’s” Tony Stark for so long, I forgot how powerfully deep he can be when he wants to. Downey remains sharp as a tack but reveals a deeper side to him in this film that I found truly enjoyable as the film progressed. I also truly enjoyed the supporting cast; D’Onofrio and Billy Bob Thornton pull much more impactful weight than I expected. One problem that keeps popping up now and then is the lack of closure with Downey’s character. The main story is resolved but there are still numerous personal qualms and quarrels that still remain unsettled with Downey’s character; like they are left hanging and remain hanging as the credits roll.
I dislike the lingering uncertainties because there was really no reason to leave them like that; a few more lines of dialog or subtle hints could have done wonders. Overall, “The Judge” is a strikingly powerful film that utilizes Duvall and Downey’s talents to their utmost potential. The relationship and conflicts feel real and thoroughly well developed; you can truly invest in these characters and their problems without anything feeling too cheesy or too Hollywood. A few problems left unchecked don’t severely diminish this drama’s depths, it’s still a very good film with an even greater cast that never once fail to capture your attention.