David Dobkin’s family drama “The Judge” stars Robert Downey Jr. (“The Avengers,” 2012) as Hank Palmer, whose return to his mother’s funeral flares up old wounds. If that wasn’t enough, he discovers his dad (Robert Duvall; “Jack Reacher,” 2012), a respected judge, has been convicted of a crime. Despite being unsure of his innocence, Hank decides to represent his father, forming an unprecedented bond between the two.
However, as predictable as it sounds, “The Judge” is anything but that. The film might be a family drama, but it’s refreshingly adult—if you didn’t notice, it’s rated R—and filled with surprising emotional honesty. Its fairly linear narrative focuses on the broken histories of broken people. Dobkin, who’s in complete control here, weaving a brutally honest story with its heart in the right place.
The emotional honesty comes through primarily due to the incredible performances of its principal cast. Downey Jr.’s got his trademark “Starkasm” down pat, and it’s probably not the most inventive turn in comparison to his Marvel outings. But his angry, self-defeating confrontations with Duvall’s Joseph Palmer bring forth an explosive emotional range that is bound to pull the rug off your feet.
Unfortunately, the trailer and poster want viewers to know “The Judge” is a courtroom drama with a personal angle, which—when you see the movie, you’ll realize—it’s not. It’s about the people. It’s about Hank and Joseph and Hank’s rival Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton; “Monster’s Ball”). It’s about the strained nature of emotional unavailability and estrangement. It’s about life, death, second chances, and decades-old open wounds.
And it shows in the technical prowess of the film. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Janusz Kamiński (“Lincoln,” 2012) captures the metropolitan and the small-town vibe equally well while giving dramatic lighting and framing an edge. Every shot boasts an old-world texture, with production design enhancing its homely, archaic feel. Combine that with Thomas Newman’s (“Skyfall,” 2012) brilliant score, et voila! You’ve got yourself an immersive drama that’s personal and emotionally resonant.
The problem is that emotional resonance doesn’t entirely hide some of the narrative flaws of “The Judge.” Character arcs such as Dwight’s and Samantha, played by Vera Farmiga (“The Conjuring,” 2012), boast well-written establishment but trail off into a half-baked payoff. It’s not without reason—the film focuses more on the relationship between Hank and his dad—but it’s hard not to be disappointed with the outcome.
An added issue resulting from the incomplete arcs of supporting characters is the runtime. At 141 minutes, the film had two options: making it longer, writing those characters with grace, or making it way shorter, keeping the (lack of) importance of those people in mind. Despite these issues, how the movie makes you feel overall isn’t damaged beyond repair. Its mixture of brilliant performances, brutally honest writing, gorgeous cinematography, and a stirring soundtrack make the film deserving of watching at least once if anything.
Its (ironically) family-unfriendly nature could hamper your decision to pick this one over other more accessible family dramas. Still, if you’re of the kind that doesn’t mind, David Dobkin’s “The Judge” will perfectly fit your bill and prove potentially rewarding.