Review of: The Judge
The Judge is a long film. 2 hours and 21 minutes is usually a length reserved for big budget, action/adventure/comic book films that feel they need the extra length to fit in all of the expensive CGI effects. I am usually checking my watch at around 100 minutes into one of those long films to see if the story is going to be wrapped up soon.
However, The Judge brings together Robert Duval and Robert Downer Jr., two of their generation’s best actors in a family drama that becomes a courtroom drama. I was engaged throughout the 141 minutes and never looked at my watch. Because this film was so rich with story and characters the film could not have been any shorter.
First let’s start with the characters. There is Judge Joseph Palmer (Duval) a small town Indiana judge of 42 years. He is tough, fair, stubborn as a rock (“’Yeah’, is not an affirmation one uses in court”) with surprising moments of compassion that are actually the source of both the family conflict and why he is accused of murder. The Judge has three sons. Hank (Downey) is a big time Chicago defense lawyer. Ruthless to a fault he tends to defend those who probably are guilty, because “innocent people can afford him”. Big brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) was a local baseball star until an accident ruined his prospects of a baseball career. And then there is little brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) who is a little slow, innocent and always filming family events. There is Hank’s ex-girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Framiga) who has an 18 year old daughter who might just be Hank’s.
The family drama is based on how stern and disciplined The Judge has been with Hank and as he grew up. Sometimes the parent and child who are really the most alike have the most trouble. The Judge and Hank are both loners in their own ways. Hank is married to his work and in the middle of a divorce. But he loves his young daughter and is good father to her. The Judge loves his family but is strict, controlling and thus distances himself from others. And as the movie begins the mother/wife of the family has died and Hank comes to town for the funeral.
There is tension because of a long ago disappointment and slights between The Judge and Hank. The older brother Glen is trying to be, as always, the stabilizing influence in the family. And the young innocent brother Dale is just trying to keep up with events.
If The Judge were just about this family drama it still could be a good, maybe a great movie. Seeing Duval and Downey together is a wonder. Duval is at his best being the strong father figure. Kind of a toned down, subtler, version of the dad in The Great Santini (1979). And Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly portrays the quick witted, fast talking lawyer. As Sam tells him that he has… “That hyper-verbal bullshit you do so well”. But he also feels deeply all of his father’s slights. We see it in his eyes even when he doesn’t say anything.
But just as Hank is about to escape and leave town after his mother’s funeral, his father is accused of murder. His car is damaged, has the blood of someone on it that was hit by a car and killed the night before. This is where this film a first rate courtroom drama. The Judge was out driving that night cannot remember being in an accident. But what happened? Why is The Judge having memory lapses? As it turns out the victim was someone The Judge might have a reason to hate. Does this mean the accident was really intentional?
And Hank has to help his father. Especially since The Judge hires a local, rather inept, lawyer who ends up screwing up the preliminary hearing. By the way, the scenes of Hank trying to endure, and failing miserable, the lawyer/antique dealer, C.P.(Dax Shepard) clumsy actions are some of the most fun in the film.
And just so you don’t think this film is too heavy there is humor in it. Hank seems to be able to say just the right smart ass thing at the right time to lighten the moment. And the younger, innocent brother Dale seems to be able to say the wrong thing at the right time to do the same.
So, how can Hank and The Judge work together on his defense? His father doesn’t really think of Hank as an “honest” lawyer. But, as Hank tells Sam, “everyone wants Atticus Finch, until there’s a dead hooker in the hot tub”. The Judge is concerned about honesty, honor and his legacy. Hank just wants to keep his dad out of prison. And they are constantly butting head about this difference.
This is why the film is 141 minutes long. This is a story that reveals itself in stages and should not be hurried. But you need to hurry to a theater and see this great film.