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The Judge

Dwell in cliché and trying to evoke sentiment, The Judge is a family drama dressed up as a legal thriller.
The Judge

Unhurried and earnest, sprawling and sentimental; once a staple of cinema-going in decades gone by, films like The Judge are no longer common fare. The 141-minute effort tugs at the heartstrings as it pits two heavyweight actors against each other, boasting handsome imagery as well as a too-obvious score that announces every ounce of emotion well in advance. Perhaps there is a reason that such broad and blatant features have fallen largely by the wayside, their posturing for prestige often eclipsing their individual elements. Indeed, nostalgia infuses every frame of the decidedly old-fashioned attempt to resurrect a style of film now infrequently seen and hardly missed; the results is amiable but undemanding.

Hours after burying his wife, an elderly man drives to his local convenience store. He crosses paths with someone he’s known not to be fond of, and wakes up the next morning to find his car damaged, clearly from an accident. The police discover a body on a nearby road, and so an investigation begins and then a trial follows. A hot-shot big-city lawyer becomes his defence attorney, duelling with local law enforcement not only over the facts, but about the biggest problem with the case: the accused perpetrator has no memory of the supposed incident.

The man is the stern, stubborn Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall, Jack Reacher), a 42-year veteran of dispensing tough justice in his small-town home, and the judge of the film’s title. The lawyer is his smooth-talking, selfish, estranged son Hank (Robert Downey Jr., Chef), home for the first time in 24 years for his mother’s funeral. The victim stood on the wrong side of Joseph’s courtroom on more than one occasion, the ramifications still haunting him to this day, and his guilt seemingly apparent. Cue a search for the truth that reunites a fractured family, one witness-stand revelation, lingering regret and unresolved altercation at a time.

Courtesy of crime wrangling akin to John Grisham-penned page-turners and multi-generational domestic conflict of the likes of August: Osage County, The Judge is a family drama dressed up as a legal thriller. In navigating technicalities and watching a good man troubled after potentially doing a bad thing, the routine components of every law-oriented effort are put to work: think last-minute discoveries, a braying and gasping courtroom crowd, and a menacing prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, TV’s Fargo) with an adversarial twinkle in his eye.

Of course, hard-earned acceptance and histrionic redemption are the actual name of the game, no matter how hard the film tries to dress up father-son tensions as something more exciting and mysterious. Both aspects are content to dwell in cliché and actively try to evoke sentiment, mawkish scenes of watching old home movies of happier times included. Following a formula and inciting an emotional reaction appears to be all that director David Dobkin is interested in. Making his first foray into drama after comedies such as Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up, he demonstrates the same wholesale lack of subtlety that characterised his less serious efforts, just wrapped up in stately aerial shots and pastel tones. 

What assists in improving the average material is the cast, all doing what they do best, even if they’re not all at their best. Downey Jr. could play his now-trademark brand of slick, wisecracking yet still loveable anti-hero in his sleep, as ever-watchable as he always is; Duvall trades upon his cantankerous on-screen persona of late, as well as affection for his courtroom antics, stemming from To Kill A Mockingbird 52 years ago. All the film really wants to do is let its stars argue, as evidenced by the bulk of its lengthy running time. Thankfully, an excellent supporting cast – the wry Thornton, Vera Farmiga (Bates Motel) as Hank’s high school girlfriend and Vincent D’Onofrio (Escape Plan) as one of his brothers – add much-needed texture to a feature otherwise palatable but plain, even if relegated to very small parts.

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

The Judge
Director: David Dobkin
USA, 2014, 141 mins

Release date: 9 October
Distributor: Roadshow
Rated: M

Sarah Ward

Monday 13 October, 2014

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay