The Judge

October 11, 2014
Robert Downey Jr. in 'The Judge' (2014)
Robert Downey Jr. in 'The Judge' (2014)

If Siddharth is a movie about a father searching for a son, The Judge is the story of a son looking for a father. That’s where comparisons end, because the latter is an old-fashined, pumped-up Hollywood soap opera that provides a star vehicle for two wellknown actors: reformed bad boy, Robert Downey Jr., recently transmogrified into the hottest box office draw in America; and the great Robert Duvall, looking every bit of his 83 years.

There is nothing understated about The Judge, which gives us the full-on Oedipal confrontation between father and son, combined with a homecoming tale and a courtroom drama. It’s a highly combustible mix of genres, and director David Dobkin – best known for that Shakespearian classic, Wedding Crashers (2005) – is happy to fan the flames. The Judge strives for emotional profundity but achieves only bathos. The directing and script are tradesmanlike when they needed to be inspired. The actors give it everything, but there’s only so much one can do with a screenplay teetering always on the brink of cliché.

Downey plays Hank Palmer, a high-powered Chicago lawyer who has made his reputation by defending corporate crooks. In the midst of one such trial he receives a message that his mother has died, prompting him to drop everything and hasten back to his despised hometown, the fictitious Carlinville, Indiana.

Hank is on the brink of divorcing his wife, who has been unfaithful to him. The problem is that he is a workaholic who has been unable to devote time to his spouse and his young daughter. It comes as no surprise however, that amoral, aggressive, egocentric Hank is really a nice guy at heart. We soon realise that the trip home will uncover these unimagined virtues, as he confronts the secrets of his past and strives to makes peace with the domineering patriarch.

Hank’s father, Joe, has been presiding judge at the Carlinville local court for 42 years. He is a powerful figure in a small town, who lives by a rigid code of ethics. We are also introduced to Hank’s two brothers who never moved away. Vincent D’Onofrio plays Glen – a youthful baseball star who now runs a garage. Jeremy Strong is Dale, a simpleton who obsessively films home movies on an antiquated camera.

Once again it’s no surprise that Hank will prove to have been responsible for the car accident that ended Glen’s baseball career, or that Dale will have captured the aftermath on film. It’s all part of the pattern of guilt and redemption that unravels remorselessly. There’s also Samantha (Vera Farmiga), the former girlfriend, with whom Hank has unfinished business.

The crisis around which the story revolves soon emerges. It seems that the Judge has gone out one night and got involved in a hit and run accident that has left a man dead. He says he has no recollection of the incident, a memory lapse that tells its own story about his failing powers. The problem is that the victim is a ne’er-do-well to whom the Judge once gave a lenient sentence, only to see him murder a former girlfriend upon release. The case was the major blemish in Joe’s career.

After a good deal of argy-bargy it transpires that Hank is given the task of defending his father, who appears as an accused murderer in his own court. The Judge turns out to be the most difficult client of Hank’s career, seemingly intent on self-incrimination, as his physical and mental health continues to decline. The lawyer for the prosecution, one Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is no mug, and the Judge gives him plenty of room in which to work.

Will Hank be able to save his father from his self-lacerating code of honour, resolving his own Oedipal dilemmas in the process? Will he be able to make amends to his ex-girlfriend, his brother, his daughter, and anyone else who needs some kind of catharsis? It all drags on for a good thirty minutes too long, as Dobkin drains every drop of drama from a soapy bucket of moral dilemmas. Even the credits seem to last an eternity.

The final key to this film lies in the soundtrack which consists of country and western numbers by the likes of Willie Nelson and Gram Parsons. One could do worse but even the most superior country and western songs trade on a steady diet of guilt, shame, misery and retribution. Squeezed into a tuneful three minutes, complexity is condensed into kitsch. We can thank the musicians for such brevity, because in a movie such as The Judge, the same process is extended over two and a half hours.

The Judge
Directed by David Dobkin
Written by Nick Schenk & Bill Dubuque, after a story by David Dobkin & Nick Schenk
Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Billy Bob Thornton
USA, rated M, 141 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 11th October, 2014.