"The law is the only thing capable of making people equal"
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a shrewd and successful lawyer with a smooth tongue. A chatterbox that overwhelms you with its arguments and you can't get in a word edgeways. He uses arguments and counter-arguments in such a natural way, as if he's ordering something to eat at a sandwich bar. Therefore for some he's an insufferable person who does not mince his words. My favorite scene is the confrontation with some drunk local figures in a local bar where he and his two brothers Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong) chat about lost times. The way he gives those windbags tit for tat and knows how to silence them, is a perfect representation of who the person Hank Palmer is. This piece reminded me a bit of Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting" who puts a group of university students in their place. Slyly I enjoy those moments. I know, schadenfreude is not a nice virtue.
Because of family circumstances, Hank must return to his hometown which he turned his back on years ago. The funeral of his mother confronts him with his past. There are his brother Glen, who once stood at the beginning of a promising career as a professional baseball player, and his other mentally handicapped younger brother Dale, who has a passion for filming and usually carries a camera to capture all kinds of scenes. And then there's his father Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) who's invariably called "Judge" by everyone. A bitter man who can look back at an impressive career as a judge in the town of Carlinville and who's more concerned with his legacy as a righteous judge than his current miserable situation. The next day after the three brothers went on a night out, Mark Blackwell is found dead and his blood is found on the grill of Judge's car. Hank's father can't remember anything and pleads not guilty. Were it not, that years ago he made the error to give this Mark Blackwell a light imprisonment who after being released drowned a 16-year-old girl, there probably still would be some doubt. But this fact does give Judge a decisive motive for murder with hit and run.
"The Judge" is not a typical courtroom drama as we've seen frequently. It's a subtle made family drama with the legal dispute as a side issue and the emphasis on the family joust. Unresolved resentment and mistakes made in the past, played an important role. The whole is explained in detail in a brilliant and subtle way and time has been taken to outline the whole family situation, based on conversations and fragments filmed by Dale. And despite the significant playing time of 140 minutes, you won't get the feeling that you have to drag yourself through it. An intriguing and fascinating family sketch that sometimes tends to become melodramatic (culminating in the confrontation in the basement during a suddenly emerging tornado).
It was to be expected that the confrontation between Downey Jr. and Duvall would guarantee some acting from the top shelf. A brilliant performance by Duvall as the stubborn paterfamilias, who nevertheless expresses some human feelings as his granddaughter comes to visit (incidentally also an admirable role played by Emma Tremblay). Downey can be arrogant. He demonstrated this already in "Iron Man". The difference is that this bugged me in "Iron Man", whereas it fits perfectly here. And definitely worth mentioning are the two emotional (and sometimes funny) renditions of D'Onofrio and Strong. Vera Farmiga ("The Conjuring"), as the ex-girlfriend of Hank, we see trotting along and merely serves as a distraction of the clash of arms between the two Palmer-clan members.
"The Judge" is a pleasure to watch when it comes to the acting, but ultimately it's still just a typical family drama with a court case as a side topic. For the rest, it's crammed with every imaginable emotive subject such as death, illness and an unwavering feud. The priority is the father-son relationship with some story-lines wrapped around it. Ultimately these stories have nothing to do with the core of the matter and only serve to incorporate frequent used cliches so it's guaranteed you'll use a handkerchief to wipe away a tear.
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