Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Movie review: The Judge

I count myself lucky to have even heard about The Judge, David Dobkin's new film about --well about a lot of things, really. The film doesn't seem to have been promoted much.

I became aware of it when I just happened to catch Charlie Rose interviewing Robert Downey, Junior, a few weeks back. Rose played a short clip from the film during the interview, an exchange between Robert Downey and Robert Duvall. It was a powerful clip featuring two of my favorite actors and I knew immediately that this was a flick I wanted to see.

Wish fulfilled last weekend.

The Judge is the story of a hot-shot Chicago lawyer, Hank Palmer (Downey), who returns home to  small-town Indiana to bid farewell to his recently-deceased mother. Any homecoming is fraught with peril, as we all know, and Hank's is no exception. He's confronted with his past sins, which include a partially-crippled older brother, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), and an abandoned lover, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). But Hank's biggest challenge is his long-avoided reunion with his stern father, Joseph (Duvall). Joseph is a prominent citizen, the much-respected judge of the small town. The relationship between Hank and his father is complex and fraught with both respect and resentment. The plot thickens when an incident occurs on a dark night drive along a country road. The consequences of the event culminate in Judge Joseph being accused of murder and facing prosecution from a resolute and ruthlessly competent DA, Dwight Dickam (masterfully played by Billy Bob Thornton). Things look very bleak for the Judge, and Hank, the prodigal son, must defend his father in the very courtroom where Joseph most recently presided.

The strength of this film, as one might imagine, is the acting. It's a powerhouse cast and Dobkin seems a skilled hand at getting the most out of his actors. But despite all the big names, there is no scenery-chewing. The performances are restrained, but powerful.

Some reviewers complain that the story is cliché, but that seems like a nit. The film's value isn't so much its moral explorations or its bizarre characters. The Judge is a film about ordinary people facing ordinary dilemmas. That's why it succeeds. Nearly everyone can find a character in this film with whom to relate: the failed baseball star, the old man plagued with doubt, the resentful son. The superb cast does the rest, delivering convincing, heart-felt performances.

The Judge is a good flick that I can recommend to anyone.

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