Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Mark at the Movies: The Judge

Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall
Plot: Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a highly successful if decidedly amoral defense attorney and estranged son of Judge Joseph Palmer, returns from the big city to his small town roots when his mother passes away. There he must deal with an angry and unforgiving father (Duvall) as well as his two brothers, who have their own history with Hank. Intending to stay just the one night for the funeral, his time at home is extended when his father is accused of murder the next morning. The balance of the movie is a riveting mix of trial testimony, dysfunctional family dynamics, and back stories that ultimately portray a deep story of forgiveness and family.

Players: Robert Downey, Jr. plumbs familiar character ground as Hank. Robert Duvall is his usual gem as the titular Judge. Vincent D'Onofrio plays brother Glen with a quiet pain and grace. Vera Farmiga is Hank's old flame, Samantha Powell, now owner of a local tavern. Jeremy Strong gives an understated performance (and serves as mild comic relief) as Hank's mentally-challenged brother, Dale. Billy Bob Thornton is on hand in his slick corporate guise as the prosecuting attorney, with Ken Howard as the judge presiding over the murder trial and Emma Trembley is Hank's daughter, Lauren. Finally, Dax Shepard also lends some light comedy as naive and part-time attorney C.P. Kennedy.

Pilot: David Dobkin directed and co-wrote the story with main screenwriter Nick Schenk. Schenk was also the main writer of Gran Torino, so he is experienced at writing complicated drama and relationships. Dobkin previously directed Wedding Crashers, The Change-Up, and Shanghai Knights, all comedies and action comedies. This appears to be his first effort at helming a straight-up drama.

Performance: The thing that stands out right away is that Robert Downey, Jr. is either completely incapable of portraying a "Joe Everyday" character, or is brilliantly using his well-known (and well-worn) cinema persona of a rich, smart, compassionate, snarky and often condescending jerk and making it work in a real-world setting (as opposed to the Marvel or Arthur Conan Doyle Universes). This is a Robert Downey, Jr. we all know and, mostly, love. It works in counterpoint to the small Midwest town (a fictional Carlinville, Indiana) in which the movie is set, but it was hardly breaking new ground for the actor. Duvall, on the other hand, has gotten crusty old codgers down to a "t" and while his, too, is a character we've seen before, he plays it with such integrity and nuance that it's like seeing an old friend. The heart of the movie is the relationship between these two and in the end, you respect them both. This is not an action movie, it is an actor's movie.

Point: I very nearly felt that this movie was a complicated and mixed retelling of the Gospel's Prodigal Son story, if the bitter brother who stayed home and the forgiving father traded places. In the end, it is a movie and a message that is life-affirming, family strong (but not family-friendly), and reminds us that no matter how far we go, there's always a place called home, filled with the people who know us and love us best.

Particulars: The film earns its "R" rating through its language - including more than two dozen "f-bombs" - with a liberal use of vulgarities and reflects a people who don't spend much time in church. There is one quite uncomfortable scene in which Hank is helping his father deal with the after-effects of a medical treatment, and it's not pretty. Both Hank and his second, C.P. Kennedy, throw up on the courtroom lawn several times before entering. And while sex is talked about and a couple of frank (but not graphic) makeout sessions occur, there is no nudity.

Raymond's Rating: I give The Judge three out of four stars. If the language had been toned down even a little, and had Downey produced a character other than an angry and petulant Tony Stark, I would have gone the whole four. At two hours and twenty-two minutes, it's a long film but there was so much story to be told - all of it intricate to understanding the relationships involved - that I didn't mind.


Mark's Musings is published on an occasional basis but that may change without notice. Find me on Twitter at This blog is considered to be a digital periodical publication and is filed as such with the U.S. Library of Congress; ISSN 2154-9761. "I choose you." You'll see.