Technical assessment: 3.5 Moral assessment: 3
CINEMA rating: V14 MTRCB rating: PG
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), a top-notch lawyer in Chicago, returns to his hometown after so many years in Carlinville, Indiana, to attend his mother’s funeral. His visit evokes memories of his past, touching wounds caused by the estranged relationship with his father, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall). This makes him want to fly back to Chicago soon after the funeral. On the plane, he receives a phone call from his brother telling him that their father has been arrested for murder charges. This compels him to stay on so he could defend his father—a reputable judge of their town. However, the cobwebs of their family’s past, hurts and grudges will not make it easy for both of them to win the case.
The Judge is an intense family-court drama highlighting the acting prowess of Downey and Duvall. The father-son complex dynamics set in the legal back drop is interesting enough to make the film stand for the rest of the running time. However, the excessive subplots that are mostly unnecessary and left unresolved distract the film from its central conflict and do not add-up to the otherwise compelling narrative. The film’s best moments are the ones that are quiet, honest, and simple—the father-son, father-daughter, grandfather-granddaughter, brother-brother scenes are very basic ones but emotionally charged. Most of the film’s highlights happen in the courtroom but the real drama lies in the quietness of moments when we see the complicated web of emotions displayed in the conversations and confrontations of the lead characters, and even in scenes when we literally hear nothing but pregnant pauses and angst-filled stillness.
Amidst the courtroom drama and familial conflict, forgiveness and integrity are at the core of the film. Hank’s and Judge Joseph’s characters are equally complex and complicated. Both are resentful and have axes to grind with each other. Both are good legal authorities, Hank as a lawyer, and Joseph as a judge. The audience can see clearly where both are coming from as the narrative unfolds. Both are neither really good nor really bad….they are just byproducts of their past. But then, the present compels both men to make difficult decisions—this time around, each has a different take on the law. Here, it is clearly depicted that wisdom comes with age as Judge Joseph stands firm on his integrity as a judge—to uphold the law even if it would result in his own incarceration—given his delicate condition. Integrity above self—that is what he wants to imply. He resents the time when he had to bend the law for emotional reasons. Hank has to learn all this in time—that sometimes, it is necessary to lose a case for the greater good. The law makes everyone equal, and that is very clear in the film. As Hank comes to this realization, he slowly starts to melt down and forgive his father, and himself. Most commendable in the film is highlighting the significance of love and family in anyone’s life—whatever your stature is. In the end, no matter what one has achieved, one would always come back to his or her roots. Achievements are nothing compared to meaningful relationships one builds—and it starts with the family where everyone is accepted (Hank’s youngest brother is intellectually challenged, yet he is very much loved in the family), where everyone makes sacrifices (Hank’s eldest brother, Glenn, has given up baseball for the sake of family), and everyone loves everyone in their own ways. Sometimes, they fail each other, but no one really fails in love. And that’s what The Judge really all about—love that is thicker than blood. However, some subplots distract the film from the core message—there is the insinuation of possible incest which is totally unnecessary, and the unresolved marital conflict of Hank that stayed in the backseat while he makes amends with an old flame. These create confusion even if they are just in the sidelights. CINEMA finds the film suitable only to audience 14 and above.