Media Review: “The Judge”

“The Judge” explores a complicated relationship between the titular judge, Joseph Palmer [Robert Duvall], and his lawyer son Henry “Hank” Palmer [Robert Downey Jr.]

Hank is a big-shot defense attorney in Chicago. Joseph has been a judge for over 40 years in Carlinville, Indiana, the kind of town so quaint it has a blueberry festival. They haven’t talked in years, until Hank’s mother dies and Hank returns for the funeral.

The visit goes as about as well as could be expected. Hank stays at his father’s house, but with little acknowledgement from him. Hank’s brothers [Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong] show sympathy, but when it comes down to it they show more loyalty to their father. On the morning of the funeral, they all leave for breakfast without mentioning it to Hank, and then leave the diner just after he arrives.

At that point, the audience has few details about why Hank and Joseph’s relationship is nearly nonexistent. The real action, along with details about their relationship, begins unfolding after Joseph is suspected of hitting and killing a man with his car. That man happens to be someone he previously gave a light sentence to, only for the man to commit murder after his release.

In a trial scene near the end, Joseph explains why he has treated Hank the way he has, and the reason is satisfying. The development of their relationship through the movie is believable.

Duvall gets the audience to feel sympathetic for Joseph from the beginning, even though the audience is following Hank, who isn’t so sympathetic.

Downey plays the same kind of character he always seems to lately. Whether he’s Sherlock Holmes, Tony Stark/Iron Man or Hank Palmer, he’s someone who’s so good at his job that people around him have no choice but to put up with his snarky arrogance because they need him.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing; Downey is good at it. And that isn’t the fault of “The Judge” any more than it’s the fault of any “Sherlock Holmes” or “Iron Man” film. But this is a warning that if you’re looking for something different from Downey, you won’t find it here.

Dax Shepard nails the role of C. P. Kennedy, a local lawyer who’s overeager and underprepared for a case of this magnitude. [Joseph realizes after the pre-trial that Hank will have to be his primary lawyer in the trial.]

The rest of the cast gives nothing to complain about, but one fault of the film is that it included too many other elements of Hank’s personal life. We don’t know at the end exactly what his relationship with his wife is. [She may not even be his wife.]

Hank may or may not have another daughter in Carlinville, which is a big question that could have taken up more screen time. But at two hours and 21 minutes, there isn’t time for more exploration of that subplot. So, it just shouldn’t have been there.​

But overall, the main plot is a satisfying exploration of the relationship between Hank and Joseph and it’s worth seeing.