Thursday, 30 October 2014

Movie Review: The Judge (2014)


A coming home father - son character drama, The Judge achieves impressive heights of emotion and boasts two excellent central performances from Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr.. The story ultimately packs itself into too neat a package, but is never less than mesmeric.

When his mother dies, celebrated Chicago defence lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) travels home to the small town of Carlinville, Indiana to attend the funeral. Hank has a deeply strained relationship with his father Joseph (Duvall), the long-serving and well respected judge in the community. Joseph is getting on in years and Hank notices that his father is struggling to recall names and events. The evening of the funeral, Joseph's car hits and kills a local ex-convict, and he is arrested for the hit and run murder.

Despite the rift between them, Hank insists on defending his father, and gets reaquainted with his brothers Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong). Glen had a promising baseball career truncated by a car crash, while Dale is functional but has a mental impairment. Hank also reconnects with old flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who now owns the local restaurant and has a fiery daughter (Leighton Meester). With the prosecution team of Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) uncovering evidence that appears to prove the judge's intent to kill, Hank has to delve into his painful personal history to try and rescue his father's reputation.

Directed by David Dobkin, The Judge is forceful drama about the present pausing to address unresolved issues from the past. With rich characters, strong emotions and the bubbling stream of family history unexpectedly converging into the headlines of today, the film is an intriguing examination of two men forced to re-examine their relationship. The film creates variety by alternating between the court case and Hank's re-engagement with family, Samantha and his past foibles, providing two narrative streams that nourish each other.

Despite the prevailing tension both in the personal dynamics and the court proceedings, the script by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque is also peppered by well placed doses of humour. The strategically deployed light touch flows naturally from Hank's big city life clashing with small town sensibilities, and the merging of the past and present sparking whimsy as well as strain.

The two Roberts deliver dedicated performances. Duvall captures the judge as a rightfully proud man not yet ready to accept the creeping damage of failing health. It's an intense, tightly coiled performance, and Duvall demands full attention whenever he is on the screen. Downey keeps up, conveying the bittersweetness of a big city success story confronting the many ghosts of his small town past.

The Judge does wrap up all its story elements into too neat a package. By the time the court case reaches its climax, the reasons for Hank's estrangement from his father have been anchored into every character and event in their common history, in a case where everything is explained, printed on glossy paper, bound in a shiny cover and tidily placed on the coffee table. It's all just a bit too satisfying and detached from the unresolved loose ends commonly cluttering real life. But despite the impeccably precise resolution, The Judge delivers a fulfilling verdict.






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