Henry “Hank” Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a ruthless, cunning, “best verdict money can buy” attorney in Chicago with an ego and a chip on his shoulder bigger than his paycheck. After finding out his mother had passed away, the man who seems to have the dream life begrudgingly heads back to his hometown, Carlinville, Indiana, a place he’s desperately tried to leave behind for the past 20 years.
As Hank pulls away from what seems to be the perfect life , his trophy wife sends him off by berating him with questions about their daughter that he can’t answer because he’s too busy to be a father while he angrily calls her out for cheating on him. He arrives in his hometown after 20 years of being absent, and amusingly he finds that not many things have changed.
When Hank attends the ceremonies we run into people from his past – first we meet his younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), who is developmentally challenged and carries around the family’s old video camera recording everything in the world around him. Then his older brother, Glenn (Vincent D’Onofrio), a former star athlete whose past with Hank is filled with twists and turns. Hank’s ex-girlfriend from high school, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), shows up at the diner she’s now worked at for over 20 years with some interesting changes in her life, and then the most complicated of relationships for Hank, his father, Joseph, but only known as the Judge even to his own family.
With his mother buried, it’s all Hank can do to flee the town he’s tried so hard to put behind him as fast as possible until he gets a call that his father was involved in a vehicular homicide and he is forced to stay. Hank discovers more and more about the place he used to call home, himself, his brothers, and especially his aging father who has left some significant information unsaid.
The story has pieces of familiar elements all combined into this roller coaster story between the courtroom drama, the estranged family conflicts, rekindling old love, workaholic parent, and dealing with loss. The most powerful piece is definitely the relationship between Hank and his father, and Duvall and Downey’s portrayals and chemistry together is what launches this film from a mediocre attempt at an adult drama into an impressive movie.
Duvall alone steals the film in his role as a staunch, old man who suffers from the humiliating physical ailments of an aging body. as a father of three, as a widower, and as a man of the law for over 42 years in a town where he has built a legacy for himself. His performance was as powerful, humbling, and moving as one would expect from the highest caliber of actors and he more than succeeded.
Downey, while not deviating too far off from the self-centered, know-it-all, problem-with-authority characters he has portrayed in the recent past, still delivered on his portion of the film by bringing an emotional depth and character development that his fans will find refreshing. Downey not only proved he can go toe to toe with established A-listers like Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton, but that he can do so in a setting that doesn’t involve aliens, gadgets, or witty side-kicks.
The supporting cast was as on point as Duvall and Downey, with Thornton playing the prosecuting attorney with an agenda against Downey’s character, and D’Onofrio, Strong, and Farmiga giving welcome breaks from the palpable tension between the story’s two main characters. Their story arcs could be borderline bland but were pushed into relevancy by their superior portrayals.
Rated R for language and adult themes, The Judge pulls the stops out in this all-too-familiar, down-to-earth story about a father and sons’ struggle to have some semblance of a relationship. It is sure to make you laugh and cry, it might even be better than Cats.