The Judge review — sentimental family drama delivers strong performances

Directed by David Dobkin, written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque from a story by Dobkin and Schenk. 

During a scene at the cusp of The Judge‘s third act, attorneys Dwight Dickham (a superslick Billy Bob Thornton) and Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr, doing that thing that he does) are discussing how they know one another. Dickham reminds Hank of an old case where he defended a client who may have killed a prostitute. “Everyone wants Atticus Finch until you find a dead hooker in a bathtub,” says Hank.

At that moment I remembered that the man playing Downey’s father, Robert Duvall, was Boo Radley in the movie version of To Kill A Mockingbird, released 52 years ago.

If there’s a single good reason to go see The Judge, it’s to watch Duvall chew scenery in the kind of role the 83-year-old master actor may not get again. That’s probably what I liked about it the most—Duvall and Downey Jr wage war against each other in an otherwise deeply flawed and sometimes painfully overwrought family drama.

Hank Palmer is a fast-talking asshole, a Downey Jr specialty. He’s a very successful lawyer whose wife has, in his words, “the ass of a high school volleyball player”. However, while he manages a decent relationship with his little girl (Emma Tremblay), his marriage is in the toilet. When his mother dies back in smalltown Indiana, Hank has to head home and face his father, the titular judge, his two brothers, Glen and Dale (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong), and his highschool sweetheart, Sam (Vera Farmiga), who stayed in the town and had a child herself, the all-grown-up Carla (Leighton Meester).

And it’s a good thing Farmiga is in this, otherwise every woman on screen would just be there as an adjunct to the men in this story. This is really a sausage party. And even the amazing Farmiga doesn’t quite manage to be an entirely independent woman, despite one great scene opposite Downey Jr that defines her as such. Is there any chance she’s still got a thing for Hank? What do you think?


I, for one, am getting pretty sick of these Sins of The Father stories Hollywood seems to love so much, but not as sick as I am of the trope of big city douchebags having to return to their small town roots in order to find a little redemption. I just don’t believe this Norman Rockwell view of America exists anymore, and The Judge slathers it on the screen with a heavy brush. Director Dobkin and his DP Janusz Kaminski have a lot to answer for in this regard, along with some really pointless CGI, and over-lit shots. Beyond a few gorgeous widescreen vistas, Kaminski, who has two Oscars (for Shindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan), should know better with all the artificial lighting, especially out of doors. It makes the movie look like something from Hallmark.

But after a fairly underwhelming first act—including an awkward scene with Hank and Carla that should have been left on the cutting room floor—the film finally locates a plot. It turns out on the day of his wife’s funeral, the judge killed a guy with his car, but he can’t remember doing it due to the aftereffects of a dose of chemo he’s getting to treat his terminal cancer.

As the movie settles into the courtroom drama, there’s a lot more to enjoy. By then Downey Jr’s natural charm has had a chance to overcome his natural obnoxiousness, and the themes of the piece, about legacy versus justice, shine in a way that, at least temporarily, overcome layers of schmaltz.


The number of heartstring-pulling elements here is just shameless. Of course Dale has a metal disability and follows everyone around with a Super-8 camera. And yes, those home movies are shown repeatedly to evoke the good ol’ bad ol’ days. To add to the family trouble, Hank also has unpleasant history with his bro, Gary.

But what The Judge gets right here is the resentment that can linger in families—you’ll say the worst things to your own blood in anger. But you’ll also help them up when they’re sprawled on the floor, in pain, trying to make it to the bathroom.

I have to recognize that this is a savvy role for Downey Jr: Hank, like the actor playing him, is a guy who has managed to reach a certain pinnacle in his profession after a rough, inauspicious youth where he made a lot of mistakes. The weight of the actor’s public persona follows him in this role, and while it may not be overt, we all know his past and that can’t help but inform, and maybe even deepen, how we connect with the guy we know as Tony Stark, as well as his character in The Judge.

But it was the echoes of Boo Radley that stayed with me as I left the screening room. There’s no way in hell The Judge will ever find a To Kill A Mockingbird level of acclaim, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Duvall gets recognized come awards time for his work here. Because the Hollywood establishment is just like this movie—sentimental at its heart.


About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.