It is so much fun to watch a movie in which great actors go head to head. Iconic scenes can result. Think DiNiro and Pacino in “Heat’; Gable and Leigh in ‘Gone with the Wind’; or perhaps Chase and Murray in ‘Caddyshack’. In ‘The Judge’ we get two of modern day films great risk takers willing to step on the tightrope and duke it out, neither particularly concerned about the net. The result is not always perfect – but it’s pretty darn good.
Part family drama, part courtroom drama/police procedural and part coming home story, ‘The Judge’ stars Robert Downey, Jr. as Hank Palmer – the once ne’re do well son of a prestigious Midwest country family and now a high flying, take-no-prisoners defense lawyer in the big city of Chicago. He is pitted again his curmudgeonly father, known to one and all only as ‘Judge’ and played by Robert Duvall. Duvall has been the pillar of the community as its judge – and often jury – for the past 45 years. The two barely speak, owing to past grievances that are kept hidden until the climax of the movie. But when Hank comes home to attend the funeral of his mother, a series of events unfold in which family history is laid bare; animosity must be set aside for the sake of a murder case; old friends appear -- as they must; and pride surely goes before the fall.
It may be argued that this film is a bit of a curiosity that simply cannot decide just what it wants to be, and as such tries to be something for everyone. I’m not sure that is a bad thing when you have an outstanding cast of characters to keep the action moving and the intensity high. Of course you have Duvall and Downey slugging away both in the courtroom and out. But there is also Vincent D’Onofrio as the older brother whose youthful promise was taken from him, and now is settled into the role of second fiddle – something he was never prepared for. His conflict is all internal, and beautifully played. As the third, mentally challenged brother who has become the family’s video archivist over the years, Jeremy Strong nearly steals the film with a performance so poignant and subtle that you welcome his every appearance on screen. And Vera Farmiga is a somewhat fleshy, blond version of her beautiful self, playing Downey’s long lost love from high school days – who may also be the mother of his long lost daughter. With all of these excellent actors sharing screen time, you really don’t worry about whether the film is ‘tight’ or not: you just want them to show up and act, which they do in spades.
But the main event is Downey and Duvall. Simultaneously at odds and in concert, countering old wounds with new demands, Downey works feverishly to defend the man he ostensibly hates, while Duvall must face not only his own deterioration, but also his culpability for the deterioration of his family. Beloved and hated, which can only happen in a small town where one man can – and probably has – impacted the majority of the population either positively or negatively, Duvall elegantly portrays the recognition that the very thing in which he took the most pride is the thing that has cost him so much. Mortality is tough – particularly on those who consider themselves immortal.
Downey, on the other hand, comes to discover that glib only really works in places where irony rules – and that is not in small town Indiana. He starts to slow down once home; reflect on his past, present and future – which include a pending divorce, a distant child and a questionable career; and wonder if he really wants everything he has. Watching him unwind – particularly in his scenes with Farmiga – is to experience acting at its best: no histrionics, no shouting; no talking faster than the mind can comprehend – just eyes, face, hands and a (very) few words. Now that’s fun.
Ultimately, “The Judge” gets a bit sappy in the end, and that detracts a bit from the totality of the film. But all in all, I think that this is an excellent character driven movie, inhabited by actors who understand and portray those characters with real professionalism. ‘Gone Girl’ is the popular drama, with many similar antecedents. But “The Judge’ is the better set of performances. If you like crime novels see ‘Gone Girl’; if you like acting, see ‘The Judge’.