Movie Review: The Judge
By Matthew Huntley
October 15, 2014
The Judge is a long, laborious drama that will probably only appeal to those unfamiliar with dramas - which is to say, not many. It’s laden with so many conventions and clichés that I can’t imagine it’ll fool anyone into thinking it actually has anything original or genuine worth getting behind. And even though it’s obvious where the story is going well ahead of time, we’re still partially amazed by its nerve to go there. This is the type of film that has us asking, “Seriously?”
The problem lies mostly with the screenplay, which has its characters jumping through so many contrived narrative hoops that one of them probably should have asked, “Doesn’t it feel like we’re in a Hollywood screenplay?” At least then we’d know the filmmakers were hip to their own devices and it might have made the plot and dramaturgy feel less forced. But it seems writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque, working from a story by Schenk and director David Dobkin, were only interested in telling a straight story. The result, unfortunately, is a slow, tedious and ultimately silly experience that would have been better suited as a TV movie-of-the-week instead of a big budget Hollywood enterprise.
As a Hollywood enterprise, though, the production values and cast are all top-notch, which makes us wish even more they were utilized for superior material. Robert Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a slick and merciless defense lawyer who makes it clear in the opening scenes that he knows the law inside and out - that it’s just a game won by those who play it best. He defends and wins cases for those who should probably be in jail, but this doesn’t necessarily make him a bad guy; he’s just good at his job. If only he was as good at being a husband and father, maybe then he wouldn’t be in the middle of a divorce and custody battle over his seven-year-old daughter (Emma Tremblay).
But Hank has other familial problems to sort out. During his latest case, he receives a phone call that his mother passed away and now this high-profile, hotshot attorney must fly from Chicago to Carlinville, a small town in Indiana that’s about as stereotypically small-town as you can get, with its leafy streets, waving flags, fishing lake and single diner overlooking a raging river. It’s one of the film’s many ploys to shape our point of view - in this case to make us think city life has made Hank cynical and jaded and that he should rediscover his roots and values from rural America.
Upon arriving, Hank greets his younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong) and older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio). Dale still lives at home and is a bit on the slow side, although he manages to capture just about everything important with his 16mm film camera, which makes it very convenient for us to see images of Hank’s past, nearly perfectly edited. Glen is married with two kids and we learn he once had a promising career in baseball before a car accident ruined his chances. Later we find out Hank was the one driving.
This latter incident, among others, drove a wedge between Hank and his cantankerous and seemingly bullheaded father (Robert Duvall), a judge and the title character whom Hank calls “Judge” instead of Dad. They have a rocky relationship to say the least, characterized by anger, grief and resentment. Given all this, Hanks’s visit home would have preferably been short and sweet, but the story adds another layer when Hank discovers the Judge’s prized Cadillac is damaged and stained with blood. The police also have a dead body, which belongs to a convict sentenced by the Judge years ago, and whose blood matches the stains on the car. Suddenly, the question becomes whether or not the Judge deliberately killed this man.
It doesn’t take someone with a law degree to figure out where all this is headed: Hank must put aside his own issues and defend the Judge in court. And yet, the movie still goes through a gratuitous and offensive sequence to make us think otherwise. At first, the Judge hires an inept, fledgling lawyer (Dax Shepard) to represent him, but this is just a poor attempt at humor (said lawyer sells antiques on the side) and a means to underline Hank’s skills.
Once the trial gets underway, it predictably serves as a catalyst to deconstruct Hank and his father’s past, accompanied by all the usual fights, conflicts and reconciliations we expect from the genre. We even get scenes with Hank’s old girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and her sexy daughter (Leighton Meester), who show up just when the plot requires them, not to mention the evil prosecuting attorney played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s so clean-cut and finely groomed he looks like a caricature of a southern plantation owner. To give you a sense of the movie’s lack of subtlety, it underscores the prosecutor’s wickedness and determination by showing him bringing his own water cup into court. When he takes it out of his briefcase, it sounds like a knife coming out of a sheath.
One can’t claim The Judge doesn’t give itself plenty of characters and situations to work with, and if it was a more ambitious story, we might have wondered how it was going to see all of them through. But as it progresses, we realize the way it’s going to accomplish this by settling for trite plot developments that require little imagination, along with patronizing tugs on our heartstrings like giving the Judge a terminal illness. By the time we learn this, though, we pretty much know where the story will end up and the emotional buttons it will continue to push as it makes its way there. As a result, we can’t take it seriously, which sort of defeats the purpose of a drama in the first place.