Directed by David Dobkin
Starring Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton
Robert Downey Jr. is in a sweet spot; he’s influential and popular thanks to him being Iron Man and all. Funny thing about those Marvel superheroes of the CGI extravaganzas, almost all the actors tasked with superheroing have leavened their work with smaller, intimate fare that reminds us that they are actors more than comic book interpreters.
Downey does particularly impressive work opposite Robert Duvall in the domestic drama The Judge. They are father and son, two titans who come at each other after a lifetime of failure to communicate. They’re looking for a power showdown, a resolution, clarity. You’re going to have to be good to stand up to Duvall and Downey stands tall.
Hank’s entrance is slick, he roars into town in a sports car, grimacing at the farm town he left behind. He has come to see his father, Joseph, a local judge with a spotless reputation, and a lifetime of courtroom weight behind him. They’ve been estranged for years, but Joseph is in failing health and ready to retire. The family isn’t too excited to see Hank. Their interactions are loaded with hostility and disdain. Hank can hardly stand to look at his father and his brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) can barely tolerate Hank and his disrespectful attitude. The Judge’s face is set and hard and he gives no quarter.
Hank too is a powerful man used to being the big dog in the city, but at home, he he’s the runt and no one seems to like him much. It sits hard. He feels he’s not being respected and he in turn he camouflages his pain with biting remarks and makes plans to vacate immediately. Downey shows his character’s outsider vulnerability and the backbone that made him a success on his own terms ion balance. The performance is authentic, deep and mature and worthy of a nomination. It’s no surprise because Downey’s talented, but the time is right as we await his next Marvel-ous outing.
One rainy night The Judge is arrested in a fatal hit and run, but it’s revealed that the man he killed was involved in an earlier court case. The charge is upped to murder. He’s confused and has no memory of the incident. Dementia is robbing him of his judgement and dexterity. Did he murder the man? Or was it an accident on a dark, wet road? Hank decides to represent him in court, against Joseph’s will. They begin the trial preps as The Judge’ physical and mental condition begins to deteriorate at an alarming rate. When Hank reaches out to help him, especially in one heartbreaking scene, the healing begins. That scene should lock a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Duvall.
The film itself isn’t up to the actors’ performances. It is a standard issue family soap, wonderfully enhanced by their work, but no timeless classic. It is a familiar story that doesn’t reach far. Oh, yes, Vera Farmiga is the girl Hank left behind – she offers a kind cup of coffee and another perspective on Hank’s previous life there, but her storyline doesn’t mean much. Vincent D’Onofrio, a solid actor, is given nothing to do as Hank’s brother, which is unfortunate. At its core, this is a two-hander. The Judge is the story of two titans working out a theme as old as time, the complex father son relationship. It’s just the two of them trying desperately to love one another again.