I haven’t seen a recently released movie quite as good as “The Judge” in a very long time. The combined star power of Robert Downey, Jr., and Robert Duvall create not just a memorable drama, but a riveting story of a family that has fallen apart because of the distance between Downey’s Hank Palmer and Duvall’s Judge Joseph Palmer. Vincent D’Onofrio as Glen Palmer and Billy Bob Thornton as prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham also add crucial supporting actor roles that act as hinges for RDJ and Duvall to swing on. And boy, do Downey and Duvall know how to act with and against each other!
Hank Palmer, a renowned defense attorney in Chicago, IL, is called home to the small town Carlinville, IN, when his mother dies. Palmer left Carlinville years ago and never looked back. He’s the middle child of Joseph and Mary Palmer; his older brother, Glen (D’Onofrio), stayed in Carlinville and runs a tire shop and his younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), has autism and is fixated on filming and Catholic saints. When Hank arrives, he goes to visit his mother in the funeral home then heads to the Carlinville courthouse, “one of the last great cathedrals in this country, built on the premise that you and you alone are responsible for the consequences of your actions,” according to its presiding judge. Sitting on the bench is Judge Joseph Palmer, Hank’s estranged father, who has delivered the swift hand of justice to the citizens of Carlinville for over twenty years. As Hank sits far back in the galley, he listens to his father criticize a young man unable to afford child support but who just bought a new truck. When the young man cops an attitude about the judge’s verdict being unfair, Judge Palmer retorts, “You still want ‘fair?’ All right. Head north. Stop when you get to Indianapolis. Tractor pulls, cotton candy, kettle corn, and the world’s largest steer. First week in August.” Duvall’s one liners and quips are fantastic and balance the line between sarcastic and life lesson. Within a few hours of arriving, Hank sums up the Palmers to his brother Glen: “This family is a f—ing Picasso painting.”
While in town, Hank sees some familiar faces and meets a new one at the local bar. As Glen, Dale, and Hank return to their childhood home, Hank notices that their father’s car, a classic Cadillac Coupe DeVille, has damage to it that wasn’t there earlier in the day. He brushes off any worries after another argument with the Judge, Hank is only too glad to be leaving Carlinville, although in Chicago his wife and he are getting a divorce. Before his plane can take off, however, Glen calls and tells him that their father has been called down to the sheriff’s office over the car damages. A body was found and the Judge soon becomes the #1 suspect. Hank takes the Judge’s case not out of love but something more akin to spite – perhaps to show him that he is a great attorney who deserved to graduate first in his class and isn’t the same person he was as a teenager. As the Judge’s story of the night of the murder unfolds, the Palmer family’s internal drama spills into the courtroom and becomes crucial to what happened the night the Judge’s car was damaged and the body of Mark Kiely.
Duvall was nominated for several awards, including the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, for his portrayal of Judge Joseph Palmer. Although the movie received mixed reviews, I found it a breath of fresh air. Downey is at once a dedicated attorney and doggedly determined son seeking some kind of redemption, and the scenes with him and his movie daughter Lauren, played by the adorable Emma Tremblay. Duvall’s performance harkens back to what might be his “The Godfather” character Tom Hagen’s future. D’Onofrio is the fantastic character actor he is known to be; it’s a shame that Glen couldn’t have had more of a starring role, but, as usual, D’Onofrio is hard to miss when he’s onscreen. Seeing Downey, Duvall, and D’Onofrio together in the heated Palmer family arguments is a thing of both tragedy and beauty: the three actors are all so good at their work that you (at least, I) can’t help but get invested in their struggles, pains, joys, and sadnesses. Billy Bob Thornton is solid in his role as the prosecuting attorney of the Judge’s trial, even if he is a bit of a jerk in his mannerisms. Seeing the transformation of Downey’s character, and Duvall’s, is wonderful. Though I wouldn’t call this a family film due to language and some of the subject matter, it is absolutely a movie you should watch. If you’re like me, you’ll laugh and cry and probably want to call your dad and tell him you love him afterward.
“The Judge” debuts SATURDAY, JUNE 06 at 8:00pm on HBO.