The Judge features an impressive cast with Robert Duvall (The Godfather) and Robert Downey Jr. (Sherlock Holmes) headlining the family turmoil drama that incorporated a complicated murder plot intermingled with a sometimes overbearing story of family estrangement. The verdict is in on The Judge and it is a mixed bag.
Given the length of the film, it is hard to imagine that The Judge would leave loose ends, yet with a run time of nearly two and a half hours, the film does in fact leave unresolved plot details, as well as areas of incontinuity.
As the film opens, Downey’s Hank Palmer is a slick, unctuous, and self-serving Chicago hot shot lawyer, who is known to provide the best defense money can buy. He claims to be very comfortable defending the guilty because the innocent cannot afford him. On the surface, Hank has it all–fancy house, expensive cars, and even a trophy wife (Sarah Lancaster), who recently cheated on him when she reconnected with an old flame on Facebook and subsequently slept with him. However, things are about to get much more complicated for Hank.
Amid his typical legal machinations, he gets a phone call informing him his mother has died. This phone call beckons him back to Carlinville, Ind., his hometown and the place he abandoned 20 years earlier. The opening sequences of the film are part of the reason the verdict on The Judge is a mixed bag. The audience does not see the abandoned wife again after the beginning of the film. While there are one-way interactions on the phone and Hank’s daughter is prominently featured, Hank’s home life is an area that is neglected and left at loose ends.
Hank’s journey back to his hometown elicited many memories, flashbacks, and unresolved issues. There are Hank’s brothers, former athlete Glen Palmer, who is played by versatile and respected actor Vincent D’Onofrio, and Dale Palmer (Jeremy Strong), who is an aspiring filmmaker and has some impairments, are still in town and are troubled by his long absence. While his high school girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), is also still in Carlinville and has harbored some long-held secrets.
Soon after Hank’s homecoming, he has an interlude at the local bar with a pretty barmaid, who is portrayed by Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl fame. Turns out, this young woman is old flame Samantha’s daughter, Carla, and Hank may or may not be her father. This is another area where the movie’s plot falters and loose ends are left unresolved. Meester is only in a few scenes and the story is used as filler. The audience does learn the identity of Carla’s father, but it is not played out or resolved in any tangible way. Once Hank learns the truth, the story is dropped. It is unfortunate since Meester is a very talented young actress and the story could have been expanded in a number of different ways, especially given the 141 minute run time.
On the bench for 42 years, the titular character, Judge Joseph Palmer, whom everyone including his own family, is referred to as The Judge. There is already early talk of Duvall garnering an Oscar nod and possibly even his second win as Best Actor for this role. Duvall won the Best Actor Oscar for 1983’s Tender Mercies. The Judge is very much the law in Carlinville, and a tyrant who is fanatical about everything on and off the bench. Judge Palmer is also harboring some secrets of his own, which complicated his wife’s passing, Hank’s homecoming, and the family estrangement drama which the film is based upon.
Hank is determined to leave as soon as his mother’s funeral is over, but forces are conspiring to keep him in town. He makes it as far as the airport and has boarded his plane to return home to his fractured family life in Chicago, when Hank is informed that The Judge has been called in for questioning regarding his damaged 1973 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Turns out, The Judge went for a late-evening drive on a rainy night and killed a man with his prized automobile. However, The Judge cannot recall what happened. Things get more complicated when it is revealed the victim is known to The Judge and was involved in a case that proved to be the biggest mistake of Judge Palmer’s career.
The Judge is ultimately arrested and stands trial for murder in the case. The film has a well-constructed murder plot behind it, as well as provided the audience with some unexpected twists and turns throughout the film. The other big reveal regarding The Judge‘s health also added nuance and unexpected complexity to the film. Other noteworthy performances were provided by Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) as Dwight Dickham, who portrayed the prosecutor assigned to ensure justice was served, as well as Dax Shepard (Parenthood), who played the small-town lawyer recruited for a case that was out of his depth.
When the verdict is reached, The Judge continued to surprise viewers with more unexpected twists and turns. The ultimatum conclusion to the case was inevitable and bittersweet. Yet, the film’s conclusion was left open-ended with many unresolved issues. The verdict is in on The Judge and it is a mixed bag of fine performances, uneven and unresolved plot issues, and extended family drama throughout the film. While there are many reasons to see the film, if the audience is looking for closure and resolution, The Judge is in need of an appeal.
Opinion and Review By Leigh Haugh
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