In an age of overly flashy, superhero-dominated, movies it’s great to see a real film once in a while; a serious, well written, well thought out and poignant film which is actually worth watching; and that’s exactly what you get with The Judge, the latest film from writer/director David Dobkin (The Change-Up, Wedding Crashers).
Robert Downey Jr. (now best known as Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Iron Man and Avengers’ movies) headlines The Judge as cocky defence attorney Hank Palmer; a man who detests his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall, The Godfather), yet returns home for the first time in years to attend his mother’s funeral, and ends up sticking around when his father ends up on the wrong side of a murder charge.
Equal parts family drama and legal drama; not only is the case supremely interesting (the Judge is accused of performing a hit-and-run on a man he detested, after giving him a minimal sentence decades ago proved to be the worst mistake of the Judge’s career), and constantly shifting, but the father/son relationship is as tense as ever, there’s an awkward history between Hank and his estranged brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio, Kill The Irishman), problems at home, a chance meeting with an ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga, The Departed), and with more besides; there’s an awful lot happening in The Judge.
Thankfully though it never feels overcrowded, or strung out, as it’s perfectly paced to meet its two-hour runtime without ever getting boring; a testament to the brilliant writing team (including not only Dobkin, but Gran Torino’s Nick Schenk , and newcomer Bill Dubuque); and proves have some immensely powerful, poignant, and gripping moments, as well as being surprisingly funny in places, and making for an excellently balanced film overall.
It also helps to have such a fantastic cast, as whilst it’s slightly difficult to believe Downey as a man called Henry, and somewhat disappointing to see him once again simply playing an onscreen version of his cocky self (right down to the rock t-shirts), it’s impossible to deny he’s a fantastic actor, easily hitting both the cocky and emotional notes and delivering whatever the scene/moment calls for with ease, just like his onscreen father Robert Duvall.
Duvall has always been a stunning character actor, and his talents show no sign of diminishing here; he has a commanding presence onscreen, is utterly believable in every single aspect (down to how likeable he could be to the townspeople, yet how stern he could be with his own children, and how stubborn and stoic he could remain despite what he’s facing), and is both powerfully strong, and completely vulnerable at the same time, delivering a truly brilliant performance.
The chemistry between Downey and Duvall was also excellent, as the pair really sold the characters’ shared history, and played off both the tense and more intimate moments well. It also helped as they were both surrounded by a fairly strong supporting cast; Vera Farmiga is probably the best (certainly least annoying) she’s ever been here as Hank’s ex-girlfriend, Vincent D’Onofrio is as strong as ever and picks up the part of the brother-in-the-middle with worn-down ease, and with additional parts being picked up by the likes of Billy Bob Thornton (Faster), Jeremy Strong (Lincoln), and Leighton Meester (Country Strong), nobody can deny The Judge’s casting was spot-on.
Yet while the writing is tight, characterisation is perfect (backstory well established, and thankfully not instantly spelled out), and direction is also solid (much of The Judge is wonderfully shot, making the most of the fictional Indiana town in which it’s based), there’s still a rather cliched, Hallmark, feeling to The Judge; it’s a great story, and one which is well told, though still one which will unfortunately only appeal to drama lovers.
Whilst it is great to see a serious, well scripted, drama with a great story, and brilliant acting in an age of superhero-dominated Box Office fluff, it’s a shame The Judge hasn’t been billed as a bigger movie. It’s a powerful, emotive, and thoroughly engaging film that, while a little cliched, hits every note you want it to; it’s everything the trailer suggests and more, and a film which comes highly recommended. If you don’t get to see it at the cinema, make sure you put it on your ‘to rent’ list.