The Judge, a stirring courtroom drama of family and legal entanglements, makes for a dandy TIFF gala opener and also an excellent reminder of the dramatic talents of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall.
As rapacious Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer, who specializes in getting wrist slaps for wealthy clients (“Innocent people can’t afford me”), Downey is the antithesis of Atticus Finch, Gregory Peck’s noble lawyer in To Kill a Mockingbird, a movie that resonates within this one. Duvall was in that 1962 courtroom classic and he’s the title star of this film, playing Hank’s estranged father Judge Joseph Palmer.
Yet when Hank finds himself back in his Indiana hometown defending his father on a murder charge — Judge Palmer is accused of mowing down a despised former defendant — he’s forced to confront not only family ghosts but also the dark spirits of his current existence, which include marital strife and absentee daddy issues with his young daughter.
The courtroom is a familiar setting for Downey, who has played lawyers in several movies and also in the TV series Ally McBeal. He could have easily just phoned this one in, relying on his whip-smart banter (or “verbal vomit” as Vera Farmiga’s romantically inclined character Samantha calls it).
But it’s clear that Downey wants to remind us that he’s got more going for him as an actor than the heroic antics of his Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes blockbuster franchises.
Duvall may also have been anxious to sink his teeth into a role that really challenges him. Hank Palmer may not be immediately likeable, but Judge Palmer is downright nasty — especially towards Hank, the one son of his three (the others are played by Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) whom he seems to actively despise, for reasons not immediately made clear.
“I wish I liked you more,” Judge Palmer snarls at Hank.
The judge does have his reasons: he’s just lost his wife of many years, the original reason for Hank’s return to the small hometown he long ago left in the rearview mirror. Judge Palmer is also evidently suffering from memory loss, possibly indicating the start of dementia or other debilitating disease.
These are hard days for the Palmer family, and they become all the more so when a man the judge had reason to wish dead is run over and killed on a dark country road and damage and bloodstains on Judge Palmer’s 1971 damaged Cadillac Seville match the crime-scene evidence.
Long considered a pillar of legal righteousness in his community, Judge Palmer now must decide whether to use his son’s courtroom acumen to try to dodge jail, or man up and explain the details of what seems to the local cops an open-and-shut case of murder.
Murder is also the theory pursued by hotshot prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who has no qualms about putting a judge behind bars.
The Judge could have been just another courtroom procedural with extra family pathos, but it’s got a third person with something to prove: director David Dobkin, who is better known for comedies such as Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus.
A quick study on drama, he brings an eye for detail and small comic touches to the film, which unfolds as a satisfying saga of a quest for personal and familial salvation — and maybe also for awards consideration.
The Judge is bathed in so much golden light, it’s as if Dobkin and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski were cutting their Oscar highlights reel right in the camera. But such moments are perhaps needed in a film with so many closed doors and shadowed hearts.