“Nonetheless, The Judge is, above all, an audience’s film, meaning that most people who go to see this film will, in turn, love it, and find themselves reflecting on life, their family, and themselves.”


by Steve Pulaski

The Judge is one of those films that with decidedly lesser and less passionate talent could’ve been a more evident hot mess than it already is. In its current form, however, it’s a rare hot mess that succeeds mostly because of the audacity and chemistry of its performers, on top of the entertaining content it provides us, despite its lengthy runtime (one-hundred and thirty-seven-minutes minus credits).

The film concerns Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), an immensely successful, arrogant Chicago lawyer, who returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral, leaving behind an unsatisfied wife who wants out of their marriage and a young daughter who knows a bit too much for her age. Upon returning to Carlinville, Hank reconnects with his two siblings and realizes all the reasons him and his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), have severed all ties to each other. Hank detests his father for not just his stubborn and sometimes vague natures, but his crooked sensibilities that often come off as brash and inhuman.

The Judge
Directed by
David Dobkin
Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga
Release Date
10 October 2014
Steve’s Grade: B-

Hank realizes he’ll have to extend his stay in Carlinville when his father is suspected of murdering a man he sent to prison some years ago. After a long, emotional night at his wife’s funeral, Joseph wakes up to find his car scratched with blood in the front-grill that matches the blood of the victim he hit, who was riding on the street on a bicycle. After being granted the ability by Joseph, Hank now has to go about defending his father, as he is up against the equally-renowned prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton).

I cannot proceed further into analysis until I recognize the beauty of Downey Jr. and Duvall’s chemistry and their individual performances. Both actors convey such a natural feeling of stubbornness and gusto that, when both men are in the room together, often occupied by tense arguing or bickering, The Judge electrifies the audience. Downey, Jr., even as he nears fifty, occupies the sensibilities and the mindset of a cocky frat boy in the best possible way, and Duvall, in his early-eighties, finds commendable energy in his role as the judge-turned-convict. When put together and given personalities that the men can convey in their sleep (Downey Jr.’s cocky, holier-than-thou attitude and Duvall’s all-knowing attitude but occasionally vague intentions), the film explodes on screen.

Then there’s the man who is likely going to get little praise, due to his minimal involvement until the final act of the film, Billy Bob Thornton, doing the best Billy Bob Thornton performance possible. You know the type; confident, but not foolishly cocky, well-spoken, with a humble southern drawl, and groomed but mannered method to his madness. Right off the bat, we have three incredible talents gracing the screen at one time, which almost makes us forget how average and often cluttered the story really is.

The Judge suffers from the classic issue of having too many subplots. In my plot summation, I mentioned two (the divorce and the murder trial), yet that doesn’t even scratch the film’s surface of how many bases it attempts to hit. Aside from trying to play up the “father never loved me” storyline, The Judge attempts to build so much around the life of Hank that it can’t keep up. We have a divorce, the rekindling of an old relationship, a possible deadbeat dad situation, a vague future, and that’s not even considering the subplots and other features plaguing the other characters, like Joseph and his other two sons. There is simply too much occurring in The Judge to effectively appreciate everything it has to offer.

Then there’s the fact that the courtroom scenes of the film, unlike in Flight, back in 2012, which proved not to be something they were ostracized as prior to the film’s release, which find themselves too lost in the affinity of theatricalities rather than realism. By this point, the whole film has taken a realistic, human focus to its story, and to see The Judge take on brazen obviousness in the way of courtroom shouting and disobedience finds ways to be off-putting at times.

Nonetheless, The Judge is, above all, an audience’s film, meaning that most people who go to see this film will, in turn, love it, and find themselves reflecting on life, their family, and themselves. I’d be lying if I said this film didn’t hit personal chords, depicting a troubled relationship between father-and-son that I have encountered in life countless times, with attitudes and stances greatly mirroring my own reality. For this reason, among the fact that the film’s performances are truly something to take in and the film’s human interest never loses sight despite a heavy dependence on storyline, I’m recommending The Judge to people as a solid piece of adult drama with a modern, human focus; we hardly ever get those anymore by someone whose name isn’t Alexander Payne.