Based on the trailer, my anticipation for seeing “The Judge” was high – – Robert Downey Jnr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton… great cast. And whilst the film is still good, it suffered in my view from getting rather bogged down in family melodrama.
The film opens with a series of stills of various items, all of which play a key part in the plot as it unfurls. Robert Downey Jnr plays hot-shot Chicago defence lawyer Hank Palmer who has a reputation for getting guilty clients off the rap in return for a big fee. He has a hot house, a hot wife and various hot cars. The death of his mother forces him back to his childhood home in Indiana – a place he has not been since his turbulent teenage years. A key reason for his absence is his father Joseph, the Judge of the title (Robert Duvall), with whom he has something of a difficult relationship. When on the day of the funeral Judge Palmer gets into his own brand of legal trouble, a battle ensues as to whether Hank can overturn his father’s stubborn views that he is better represented by the local hick lawyer cum shopkeeper C.P. Kennedy (played extremely well by Dax Sheperd).
Surrounding this main story are the various sub-plots involving his relationship with his three brothers, his past high school flame and his hauntingly torrid past within his home town.
There is great acting on display here. Veteran actor Robert Duvall in particular is exceptional in the lead role, struggling to balance the conflicting demands of his defence with his reputation within the community. Also on top form, Billy Bob Thornton plays a devastatingly fearsome prosecution lawyer – looking like a hawk, you would hate to be in the witness box when he started on you!
Robert Downey Jnr, when he gets his teeth into the meatier scenes, is also exceptional: one scene in particular with Thornton in the police station office is just riveting. However, I felt Downey Jnr sometimes drifted into being (as my son neatly put it) “a bit Tony Stark-ish in places”: playing out the old disarming comedy schtick works brilliantly in the Iron Man or Sherlock Holmes films, but in this intense drama it sometimes detracted from the character of the film. The ever-reliable, and this time blonde, Vera Farmiga plays Samantha, the high school beauty he left behind who he finds still serving behind the bar of the local diner (although with a nice twist). However her role really isn’t fleshed out particularly well and she feels underused in the plot and the film in general.
Where the film struggles is in the screenplay which seems to be bogged down with too much ‘stuff’ that needs to be worked through. The core story, albeit rather formulaic, is good and compelling and doesn’t really need all the extra baggage. A more judicious (no pun intended) edit and a reduction in the running time would have helped. The film also seems to try to play a ‘fish out of water’ card of the hot-shot lawyer in the backwater town, but rather misses the mark. Nice try but no cigar.
Another significant criticism for me was in the sound mixing department. This might be my 50+ year old ears, but what with the fast delivery of lines and Duvall’s gruff style, a lot of the dialogue didn’t successfully make the short journey between ear and brain. And there were some really key lines of dialogue that I missed. If this was on the TV, I would be constantly hitting rewind to catch what was said – unfortunately they don’t let you do that in the cinema.
Outstanding though was the cinematography (by the great Janusz Kaminski). The film was shot in Massachusetts (principally the town of Shelburne Falls) and it looks beautiful, with clever boom work delivering sweeping and cleverly composed shots of the town. In particular, there is one stunning shot of Downey Jnr driving into town near the start of the film which is just superb. I’m not sure how it was done, but I’m thinking possibly a drone attached to the moving car that was then untethered and flew away? Breathtaking… almost worth the ticket price alone!
In summary, not a perfect film but one with enough emotion and acting talent on display to be worthy of your multiplex investment.
Fad Rating: FFFf.