Title: The Judge
Director: David Dobkin
Major Players: Robert Downey Jnr, Robert Duvall, Billy Bob Thornton
Out Of Five: 3
The Judge created something of a buzz when it was picked as the opener for last month’s Toronto Film Festival. Its People’s Choice Award – there’s no official jury – has something of a track record when it comes to picking Oscar winners. Think The King’s Speech, Slumdog and 12 Years A Slave, all past winners. And with The Imitation Game taking this year’s trophy, the prospects for this family drama wrapped around a detective story don’t look terribly promising.
Hot-shot lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jnr) is a big success in Chicago, but has to return to his small home town when his mother dies. He’s not been back for years and his relationship with his father, the local judge (Robert Duvall), is strained to say the least, nor does he get on very well with either of his brothers. With the funeral over, he’s about to leave when his father is involved in a car accident, which kills a man. And the evidence starts to point to the judge having done it deliberately.
As a portrait of a dysfunctional family, despite all their advantages, the film works well and much of that is down to the cast. The reason behind the constantly simmering animosity between father and son is held back until half way through the film, as is the resentment between Hank and his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) – and it’s nothing to do with sibling rivalry. Although the three sons – there is a third, Dale (Jeremy Strong) – are so different that they look implausible. There’s no similarity in features, characters or build, either with each other or their parents. All you have to do is look at the blubbery D’Onofrio and the trim Downey Jnr.
The barriers between father and son do start to break down, but it’s a gradual process and the film takes the realistic stance of showing the relationship taking one step forward and two steps back. And that means – thankfully – no idyllic reconciliation. It emerges that the judge is hiding a health secret and it’s when Hank gives his dad some much needed support that they edge towards some form of mutual understanding and the scenes are nicely acted without a hint of mawkishness. Although normal service between the bickering pair is resumed quickly afterwards!
The classy cast brings plenty of conviction to the story. Jeremy Strong’s Dale is an especially nice piece of acting, but Billy Bob Thornton is woefully under-used as the prosecution attorney at the father’s court case. He shows every sign of being interesting, eccentric even, but it sadly all comes to nothing. Vera Farmiga doesn’t have much to do either, apart from provide some love interest as the girl Downey Jnr left behind. And, for much of the film, he thinks he left something else behind as well, which is a credibility-stretching distraction.
The film’s big problem, though, is that it’s way, way too long at nearly two and a half hours. It simply doesn’t need it. The final scenes of the film are dreadfully drawn out so you really do find yourself thinking “get on with it!” In fact, it’s questionable whether or not the film needs to continue for very long much beyond the verdict in the court case. But continue it does – almost to the point of self-indulgence.
Somewhere underneath this sprawling epic-length – but not epic in content – film is a good story about family relationships struggling to get out. Failing that, the makers should’ve kept the length but gone down the TV route instead: it would be spot on as a two part mini-series.
The Judge is released in cinemas around the UK on Friday, 17 October.