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Downey, Duvall carry compelling ‘The Judge’

By Andrew Fishman / Staff Writer

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“The Judge”

Directed by: David Dobkin

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga

Grade: A-

A judge is entrusted to dish out consequences for illegal actions. But life has a funny way of deciding consequences on its own, regardless of legality. 

The Judge” explores how consequences are decided when a highly respected judge in a small Indiana town, Joe Palmer (Robert Duvall), is accused of a deeply heinous crime.

His son, Hank, a successful hot-shot lawyer from Chicago, gets a phone call in the middle of a trial with news of his mother’s passing. He leaves home — along with his nearly divorced wife and his young, innocent daughter — to return to his fictitious hometown of Carlinville, Ind., for the funeral. 

He reconnects with his two brothers, one of whom has an undisclosed mental disability, along with his old friend and lover, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). But Hank’s deteriorated relationship with his estranged father puts a damper on the visit, culminating when Joe — referred to as “the Judge” even by his own children — insults Hank’s crumbling marriage. 

Hank must put this incident, as well as years of strict, unaffectionate parenting, behind him when he gets a call from his brother that the Judge is in trouble and needs Hank’s help. His father has been accused of murdering one of his former court subjects. With his life and esteemed reputation at stake, Judge Palmer must turn to the son with whom he has no relationship.

Hank, who is criticized by his family and friends for rejecting Carlinville for the more lavish city lifestyle years ago, finds himself stuck there yet again during the prolonged trial. While working with his father, “the most bullheaded client [he] ever had,” Hank searches for a reconciliation during their forced time together. Piece by piece, Hank and the Judge attempt to rebuild their relationship by discussing past tensions and displaying vulnerability. It’s capped off by a visit from Hank’s daughter, in which the Judge is surprisingly caring and loving — all in the midst of his trial. 

Director David Dobkin (“Wedding Crashers,” “Fred Claus”) steps out of his comfort zone to create an emotional drama about a boy’s relationship with his father. Downey’s performance was one of his best, portraying a deep character who appears tough on the outside and smooth in the courtroom but is really only looking for affection he never received in his younger days. Duvall counters Downey in an equally impressive performance, accepting the clichéd role of a stubborn old man but making it all his own by transforming gradually throughout the film into a person with sincere vulnerability. 

Through flashbacks and other interactions between the Palmer family members, the audience discovers some of the reasons why Hank and his father’s relationship is so strained. It mostly stems from the decision to send Hank to a juvenile detention center for some questionable choices in his youth. His father turned Hank into the man he is in the film, for better or worse. Similarly, the Judge’s choices, both in the courtroom and in his personal life, have their own consequences.

The effects of decisions and father-son relationships are central themes, but “The Judge” is also about leaving home and returning years later — which can be especially relatable for soon-to-be college graduates.

While the previews make “The Judge” seem flashy and suspense-filled, the film is a surprising emotionally driven drama that presents an impassioned view on what life is all about.

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Downey, Duvall carry compelling ‘The Judge’