Tuesday, May 04, 2021

The Judge: A Highly Watchable Character Study

Movie ReviewThe Judge (2014)
Version: Hulu

Through the vault of time we discovered a little gem called The Judge with Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in the leading roles. These fine actors played typical roles for their careers, so no ground breaking here. But it was a good film none the less made better by the steadfastness of their performances and backed up by Billy Bob Thornton as the main antagonist along with a few unsavory other characters.

The Judge is a story of suspense. Downey plays Chicago attorney Hank Palmer, who returns home to small-town Indiana to bury his mother. There he is confronted by his father, Joseph, played by Duvall, a down-the-fine-line judge who shows no favors and believes the rule of law strictly observed best serves the community. Old Dad doesn't see the world through the same lens as his expensive-criminal-defense-attorney son, and they battle it out through a good portion of the movie, sparring over what we don't know until the end. But things begin to smooth out over time as Hank devotes his expertise to defending his reluctant father after Joseph apparently hits a past defendant where there are no witnesses and few clues, and Joseph has a memory lapse due to the effects of chemotherapy. The suspense rides over whether the cranky old guy really did it and can Hank save his surly father -- his cancer-victim father -- from prison.

There is probably more to like in the characters than in the plotting or the pacing or the cinematography. Duval is likable as he always is as the venerable old gentleman with principles. Downey is lovable as the quick-witted scoundrel who owns all the knuckleheads. Billy Bob Thornton comes across as the scuzzy prosecuting attorney eager to convict Hank's Dad just to get even with Hank for past slights. So I would say this is more a character-driven story than anything. Even Hank's brothers, minor to the plot, add juice to this story. Vincent D'Onofrio plays older brother Glen, whose chance at sports stardom was nicked in a car accident in their youth and dad and brother have never gotten beyond it. Jeremy Strong plays youngest brother Dale, developmentally disabled and under Hank's parent's care and the family's history-caretaker through his obsession with film. There are an assortment of other lively characters to fill Hank's and Joseph's backstories, including Hank's high school girlfriend and her illegitimate daughter with deep questions of whether she might be Hank's daughter, too. A lot of resentments and misinterpretations fill in between a load of backstory mysteries.

What you have to look forward to, then, isn't just a mystery but an intense but highly watchable character study. And it's well worth watching unfold, right through the redemption scene at the end.

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