VOD film review: The Judge
Case for the defence8
Case for the prosecution7
Mark Harrison | On 19, Feb 2015
Director: David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton
Watch The Judge online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
In the run-up to the 2015 Oscars, we look back at this year’s nominees and where to watch them online.
From a storytelling standpoint, courtroom dramas are a bit like musicals. Also like musical numbers, witness testimony and the ensuing cross-examination can take a while – running times tend to bloat in the course of due process.
The Judge takes 141 minutes to fully pan out, but for much of that time, it’s waylaid by back-story and misjudged subplots, as opposed to courtroom scenes. It’s slow, deliberate and oh-so-worthy; there are times watching it when you’ll wish you wanted anything so much as some of the people making this want an Oscar.
At the outset, we meet defence attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), as he urinates on a prosecutor’s shoes for criticising his preference of rich, obviously guilty clients. “Innocent people can’t afford me,” Hank tells him tritely.
But the sudden death of his mother takes some of the bounce out of his bungee, not least when he has to return to his backwater home town in Indiana and face his pop, Joseph, (Duvall) a respected judge. They’re not on the best terms, but Hank is persuaded to extend his stay when Joseph runs down and kills a felon he failed to convict.
Joseph, who has always put the law before his own sense of justice, is in deep trouble, especially after Dwight Dickham, (Billy Bob Thornton) a prosecutor from out of town takes a special interest in the case. Hank represents his father, but their fraught personal history and the prosecution’s mounting evidence of malice aforethought in the incident threaten total defeat.
In male-dominated Hollywood, we have seen the kind of daddy issues at work here from just about every angle. What The Judge has in its favour is the central pairing of Roberts Duvall and Downey Jr. Their scenes together are volatile and irresistibly watchable. Downey was born for this kind of role and it’s hard to think of anyone who can play unlikeable suits with as much charisma. Also, this clearly finds him hungry for a non-tentpole role, without any robot fights or plum-voiced mental gymnastics, and he’s found it somewhere between Doc Hollywood and On Golden Pond.
The film shamelessly courts attention from AMPAS, and it has it in the form of a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Duvall, who gives as good as he gets opposite his on-screen son. He makes for an abrasive father figure, but there’s not a bit of vanity in his performance as an honourable man brought low by his own high standards and the simple passage of time.
Writers Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque tease out various parts of the story in dribs and drabs, gradually filling in the blanks on Hank and Joseph’s history in the run-up to a barnstorming emotional showdown (which actually takes place during a hurricane), as well as lending ambiguity to the central case. There’s also some rock-solid support from Thornton, whose character is only nominally the antagonist, personally invested in seeing that justice is done by a desire to wipe the smirk of Hank’s face. All vendettas aside, he may be the most scrupulous character in the movie and Thornton commands the screen throughout every scene in which he appears.
But there’s a muchness in The Judge’s desire to be worthy, and that comes through in the ancillary characters. For instance, Hank’s two brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) hover in the periphery, with the former doing some exasperated peace-keeping between Hank and Joseph and the latter running worryingly counter to another Downey character’s advice about Oscar-baiting from Tropic Thunder.
Hank’s adorable daughter (Emma Tremblay) is also on hand to dispense precocious advice as her divorced parents prepare to battle for custody. But worst of all is a dunder-headed running gag about a barmaid (Leighton Meester), whom Hank hooks up with on his first night in town and is connected to an old flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga). The subplot is almost played for comic relief, the kind of thing that might be played for laughs in one of director David Dobkin’s bawdier, more indulgent comedy movies, but here, it’s one of many diversions from the real meat of the story.
Fishing is a key motif, and it’s never more apparent than at the fever pitch of awards season that fishing is exactly what the film is doing. It’s a performance showcase rather than a fully satisfying film, with the electric interplay between Downey, Duvall and Thornton making for some watchable, if not hugely memorable drama.
The Judge is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription. It is also available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.