Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dax Shepard and Jeremy Strong
Directed by David Dobkin
From Warner Bros. Pictures
by Michael Clawson of Terminal Volume
A group of brothers, some of whom have deep-seated emotional turmoil and father issues, have to team up and work together to save their fearless leader, a hard-headed warrior for justice who finds himself on the wrong end of the law in a swirling storm of adversity.
That description could easily be for the next Avengers movie — and look, there’s Tony Stark! — but I’m happy to report there’s not a Marvel hero in sight in David Dobkin’s grounded courtroom drama The Judge, about a cynical defense attorney who returns to his small-town roots to defend his father, the tough-but-fair judge of the small hamlet.
The defense attorney is Hank Palmer and he’s full of dry wit, motor-mouthed comebacks and snarky tirades. In the opening scene he pees on a pesky prosecutor who likes to chat at urinals. Are we shocked he’s played by Robert Downey Jr.? Nope. Hank is summoned home when his father, the Judge (Robert Duvall), is arrested for a hit-and-run death. The evidence does not look good: blood and flesh are in his Buick’s fender, convenience store security footage paints deadly intent, and the Judge can’t account for 10 missing minutes in his fractured timeline.
Hank’s legal skills are so slick — someone calls him Dershowitz as a joke — that he runs circles around the local prosecutor, a stony mountain of blandness played by Billy Bob Thornton, yet his worst enemy is the defendant, his stubborn father who refuses to listen to wise counsel if only because it comes from Hank, the family’s reluctant Prodigal Son. The Judge just doesn’t approve of many of his son’s law-bending antics — “Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in the hot tub,” Hank tells his father.
The Judge could have easily been a staid courtroom drama, a John Grisham B-side, a flabby family squabble. But it takes its central struggle — father versus son, son versus father — quite seriously, enough so that you start believing Downey and Duvall’s epic performances. Some of it is funny and insightful (“I wish I liked you more,” the Judge tells Hank in front of his brothers) and then there’s a brutal honesty to other parts.
One sequence in particular, forever known as the Poop Scene, cuts to the depth of fathers and sons: yes, they often hate each other, but deep down they care more than either can adequately verbalize. The scene is shocking in its graphic depiction of age and sickness, and yet the crude depiction cuts through the barriers that separate bickering families. If The Judge were simply a courtroom thriller, it would be perfectly mediocre. But the layers of guilt, doubt and hostility of its central characters elevate the film into something more, something true and pure.
The movie is not perfect, though. It’s a little too wordy, and there are many passages of mindless exposition that serve as a lush bed of evidence for litigation later in the movie. I will say this, though: the film uses everything. Snippets of old 8mm footage, throw-away lines of dialogue, minor characters … The Judge doesn’t let anything die on the vine. I also really appreciated some of the inventive courtroom stunts, including one where Hank weeds out prospective jurors by asking what the bumper stickers on their cars say. Ingenious!
Although much of the script is weighted toward Hank and his father, heartfelt attention is paid to Hank’s brothers and several other key members of the small town. Vincent D’Onofrio plays his older brother, a former baseball phenom sidelined by Hank’s carelessness. Jeremy Strong plays his younger brother, an autistic man with a gentle soul and a vintage camera forever in his hand. Dax Shepard is a rookie attorney who can’t enter the courthouse (“the last great cathedral”) without vomiting near the court steps. Vera Farmiga is an ex-girlfriend who won’t let Hank ditch out on her again. Now, I mentioned The Avengers earlier, and I did that because The Judge has this moment where everyone assembles together Marvel-like to fight on the Judge’s behalf. It’s an invigorating feeling to see everyone rally around this polarizing character with so much compassion and blind faith.
The Judge is just funny enough, just serious enough, and just poetic enough to be the sleeper hit of the fall. And I hope it is.