Written by Ankit Ojha
What to Expect
Why would one want to watch this film?
I kept asking myself the same question when I finished watching the trailer the first time. Why would I want to watch a family drama film with a potentially predictable angle?
Probably because there was something that clicked in me. I felt an affinity toward the film unlike any other, for some reason. It felt personal, right from the trailers, which give out a vibe of old-fashioned intimacy in a family drama that’s – surprisingly – R-Rated. What, however, really matters – apart from all the emotional relevance I felt toward the film – is that the film is a test of sorts for two people voluntarily getting out of their shell.
The two in question are Robert Downey Jr. and David Dobkin.
While Downey in his post-Stark attire has been stuck with his image of a larger-than-life character, Dobkin has normally been proficient with only comedy flicks of the likes of Wedding Crashers and Shanghai Knights (the sequel to Shanghai Noon), to name a few. One can definitely argue that Downey has been around for relatively substantial roles in The Soloist and Zodiac, but you cannot ignore by any means that everybody expects a very singular trait from him in the movies. This is definitely where The Judge comes in, which he not only performs the lead in, but also finds himself debuting his journey of movie production with.
Which definitely makes this film a major moment-of-truth of sorts for quite a few people. Comfortingly enough, considering that the movie consists of the additional star power of Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga and Billy Bob Thornton, the audience has enough to expect from the film to run to a nearby cinema playing the film.
What’s it About?
Hank Palmer’s (Downey Jr.) reluctant return to Indiana for his mother’s funeral flare old woulds up, while new threaten to be created. As if this wasn’t enough, Hank’s father Judge Palmer (Duvall) is convicted of a crime he may or may not have done, leading to Hank representing his father’s case, and an unprecedented bonding of sorts is formed. But is life ever really a bed of roses?
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Let me state upfront: this movie is not a courtroom drama. It does not deal with powerhouse cases. It deals, instead, with broken relationships, secrets and pain, with the courts and the law acting as a mere – and yet fairly important – backdrop. Obviously now, one would be thinking: how will a family drama get its deserved payoff under the hands of a director famous otherwise for comedy?
Here’s the big surprise though: David Dobkin is in complete control here. Every shot is carefully taken, tastefully captured and wonderfully knit to form a heartwarming family drama that has emotionally high relevance and its heart in the right place; not to mention how brutally honest it is in a lot of places.
Most of this honesty though comes from how efficiently the characters are written and how they evolve throughout the film. While Downey Jr.’s Hank Palmer has the trademark sarcasm the actor is associated with more often than not, there’s lots more revelations that keep arriving at just the right times. This, coupled with the performative restraint the actor exudes on screen, brings out a darn well-layered character portrait of a son driven by hatred due to an absolute lack of validation throughout his lifetime. Ditto for Duvall’s Joseph Palmer. The trailer definitely exudes an air of warmth, but here’s the thing: that’s not all. There’s lots more going on in the lives of the characters that are wonderfully revealed without any sort of forced exposition or foreshadowing. This allows quite a few of these important, life-changing events on screen to unfold with a sharp, unprecedented unpredictability that will most definitely surprise a bunch of viewers.
The movie is, unfortunately, not perfect. There are instances where some promisingly developed characters are given undeservingly half-baked evolution. Vera Farmiga, for example, is a highly talented woman, who’s warm and also equally badass, but there’s no payoff of any kind to her character, relegating her to nothing more than a mere prop. The same can be said of Billy Bob Thornton’s no-nonsense Dwight Dickham, whose character could have made for a thrilling prosecution-versus-defense case, that wasn’t totally exploited. One can get why, but would also simultaneously be a tad disappointed with this turn of events. Besides, for the potential viewer worrying about the length of the film, here’s the harsh truth: at 2 hours and 22 minutes, the film has a lot of chances to feel stretched to some sections of the audience.
But that’s not to say the movie is terrible by any means; if you take these flaws and keep them aside, it will definitely involve you to a large extent. This is helped solidly by mostly smooth-and-steady camera operations throughout. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (Schindler’s List) captures both the cityscape and the townside feel very well, whilst giving dramatic lighting and framing an edge. The shots – clearly with film-grain in most of them – are given a certain old-world texture that viewers will definitely savor upon. Production design relies on a very homely, archaic feel to most of the film to increase a sense of intimacy. Add to that a dash of minimalism, and you’ve got your atmospheric feel just perfect. Speaking of perfect, if there’s anything that will wow the viewer, it’s going to be Thomas Newman’s (American Beauty, Pay it Forward) brilliant score. Right from the motif piano piece (Samantha, I Choose You) that keeps reappearing at just the right time all the way to the gorgeous Wabash River Float, the softly orchestrated, brilliantly composed and produced, and dreamily mixed sounds enhance the scenes like no other, with the additional power of transporting the viewers to varied times of emotive reminiscence.
To Perform or Not to Perform
The movie features a host of dazzling performers, but if there’s anyone who impresses firsthand, it’s Robert Downey Jr. While his trademark sarcasm continues to exist, Downey Jr. happily relegates his signature image to pitch forward a relatively more intimate, painfully personal character portrait in his performance. Watch out for his moments of subtle, silent emotion. They’re enough to almost move the viewer to tears. Ditto for Robert Duvall, who initially plays the been-there-done-that stern father, but ends up being an absolute revelation throughout the final hour-and-twenty-minutes of the film. Following up to these two absolutely brilliant performances is that of Jeremy Strong’s (Zero Dark Thirty). Strong, who plays a character that can definitely be overdone or underdone, gives his all and shows conviction. You feel for him a lot of the times. Vincent D’Onofrio (JFK) is a great watch, and handles the shifts in mood of his character deftly. Farmiga (Up in the Air) is fantastic to watch, and matches her role darn well. The problem, of course, is how intermittently her character is used. Billy Bob Thornton would probably be the biggest disappointment here, as though he performs commendably, the runtime of his role doesn’t allow him to explore other venues. Emma Tremblay is adorable and will most definitely melt hearts. Dax Shepard (television’s Parenthood) is efficient and unpretentiously hilarious. Others are great.
Well, I’ve already established that the movie isn’t perfect. There are lots of characters that needed further prodding into, and the movie is too long for its own good. However, keeping all of that aside, the film ends up being an absolutely worthy watch for the EXCELLENT performances of Downey Jr. and Duvall, as also for how frank it is in many places for being a family drama. With a mixture of surprising warmth, fantastic cinematography and a sweeping score, The Judge is a definite must watch.
Like I usually state though; this movie has a certain kind of audience. If you are that audience, then the movie will perfectly fit your bill. To those entering with a certain highly restrictive set of expectations, however, you’ve been fairly warned.
Star Rating: 3.5 / 5
PS: This movie may not necessarily be for everyone. For those looking for a clean family drama they can take their kids to, this is not it. The movie’s rated-R by the MPAA for language and quite a few sexual references.