The Judge is a new comedy starring Robert Downey Jnr. and Robert Duvall … or a home town drama … or a court thriller. In fact, you might as well be ‘the judge’ since it’s not entirely clear.
>Robert Downey Jnr. squares off against Robert Duvall in this film about the intersection of a murder investigation and a muddled father-son relationship. Downey plays Henry ‘Hank’ Palmer, a successful city lawyer who returns to his hometown in Indiana for his mother’s funeral, only to discover his father is now the chief suspect in an unrelated murder. Duvall is Joe Palmer, estranged father and also the town’s resident judge. Hank finds himself in the difficult position of trying to defend his father against determined attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) while trying to decide if he really cares if his father lives or dies.
The Judge begins with a fairly straightforward quest plot – a son searching to see where he belongs – but sadly quickly loses its way. Hank has to crazy brothers who he touches base with after embracing a life as a big city lawyer. The awkward comedy comes quick and fast, right down to Downey’s character accidentally hooking up with his former girlfriend’s daughter. Then the story switches tracks, delving into the dark past that separates Hank and Joe. There are brooding moments of reflection, savage explosions of temper and even sweet scenes of understanding. But once again the plot takes a left turn with the entry of Billy Bob Thornton. Now we’re watching a full blown court drama and a race against time to find the one clue that will prove Hank’s father’s innocence … at least until the jokes start again.
There are the occasional comments about life and death, even Heaven, which might be worthy of reflection, but rarely rise above the clichéd. With all this confusion it’s no wonder that you don’t really come to care much about the key characters or their opinions. Yet while I was watching I couldn’t help but struck by the clichés the writers shoe-horned into Robert Duvall’s character. He was a craggy old man … a judge by occupation … who never knew when to put down his gavel, especially when he was at home … and had no concept of mercy whatsoever. He tells his country courtroom,
“You are standing in one of this country’s last cathedrals where you are held absolutely responsible for all of your actions.”
Hank is embittered by his father’s decision to send him to juvenile detention for six months as a teenager for causing a car crash. He wonders why his dad couldn’t see his way clear to forgiving him, particularly when even the prosecutor agreed the sentence was harsh for a young man on the cusp of life, and Hank himself had been sincerely sorry for what he’d done. It wasn’t until I heard the resentment bubbling out of Hank’s comment that years had gone by and ‘The Judge’ was still holding back forgiveness, that I realized what we were looking at – someone’s idea of God.
It’s actually a quite familiar composite image: The aging, intolerant judge who only remembers what you’ve done wrong, stands ready to condemn, and takes no account of how you’ve tried to do right. The real pity, though, is it’s an case that can only be made with the assistance of second-hand testimony. Anyone who actually reads the Bible encounters a God who holds perfectly to justice but just as completely offers to take the punishment for our disobedience. Rather than being inflexible, He seeks sinners with a dedication and abandonment that staggers creatures like us. And the Bible and life experience agree that no one who comes to Him for mercy has ever been turned away. This is a case where you don’t need someone else’s testimony to know what the Judge is like –
“Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him.”
Release Date: October 9