Director: David Dobkin
Actors: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton
Writers: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
Runtime: 141 min
The courtroom drama is a subgenre of film that has enthralled audiences for years. From classics such as 12 Angry Men (1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to relatively recent masterpieces like And Justice For All (1979) and A Few Good Men (1992), good law films never fail to ask tough questions of their viewers. David Dobkin’s new film The Judge combines the inevitable drama of the family with that of the courtroom, and presents the moral ambiguities that make for some of the best films. This work achieves the feel of a classic law film by grounding its story in a tumultuous father-son relationship, making use of charismatic actors and genuine humor in order to produce the ideal serious yet enjoyable tonal balance of a perfect TIFF opening night film.
There is not much that would prompt successful big-city lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) to return to his small hometown, save the death of his mother. When this tragedy does bring him home, Hank is forced to face his estranged father Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), the town judge with whom he shares a rocky relationship. When Joseph is shockingly accused of the murder of a man he convicted twenty years prior, Hank attempts to put their struggles behind them and defend his father in court. As he learns more and more about the case, however, Hank – and the audience along with him – begins to have his doubts as to Joseph’s innocence after all.
The cocky yet loveable Downey is an actor who is always guaranteed to entertain, but here he shows an amount of subtlety along with his charming charisma and presents a powerful lead performance. Duvall is likewise perfectly cast as the crusty father who is sympathetic in his grief; scenes that show Joseph interacting with his young granddaughter are especially heartwarming and work to convince an audience that he is a good person even as his possibly murderous actions are being investigated. Hank’s two brothers – one kind yet simple, the other who could have been a football star if not for an adolescent automobile accident – combine to create the dysfunctional yet wholly realistic family to which anybody can easily relate. Even with its serious subject matter, the relationships and interactions between these characters create amusement and promote an emotional reaction from a viewer.
Director Dobkin has carefully chosen each of his shots for maximum dramatic effect, but avoids contrivance by keeping them simple and the flow effortless. A few moments of less-than-stellar green screen stand out simply due to the high quality of all others. A strong score also works to guide audience emotion, as the music grandly swells predictably but to no less of an effect. One simply must accept these Hollywood techniques for what they are, and go along for the ride; I for one have no problem with manipulative cinema, and can certainly enjoy it in its place.
The Judge is a courtroom film that centers on a powerful family drama, which proves to be a winning combination. The film also provides an enthralling mystery for audiences to attempt to unravel along with Downey, and which will keep them guessing until the conclusion. Moments of real humor and emotion punctuate the work, as do the moral dilemmas that prompt real thought and consideration, and it is of course a pleasure to watch a cast of talented actors at work. True heartbreak can only be found within real human stories, and the father-and-son tale that is at the core of this film allows it to achieve this great feat.