Monday 1 June 2015

The Judge

Directed by David Dobkin and out now on DVD & Blu-Ray comes drama The Judge. Robert Downey Jr plays big city lawyer Hank Palmer, who must return to his small hometown when his father (Robert Duvall), respected member of the community and town judge of 42 years, is suspected of murder. He fights in court as his father’s lawyer and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family and old friends. I presided over the case of The Judge and am ready to cast my verdict. Do I find it guilty of being another mediocre, cliché-ridden courtroom drama? I solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. And I promise, there won’t be many more courtroom jokes. Objection! Yes, there will! 

Let’s kick things off by looking at the highlight of the film – a certain Mr. Duvall. At one point during The Judge, a reference is made to the iconic courtroom story To Kill A Mockingbird – surely not a coincidence this would be mentioned, as the 1962 film adaptation starring Gregory Peck was Robert Duvall’s screen debut. Since then, Duvall has appeared in some of the greatest films of the silver screen; including The Godfather, Apocalypse Now and Network to name but a few. Duvall is one of the finest actors in cinema history. I’ve always believed that to be true, and his performance in The Judge just furthers that belief. Without a shadow of a doubt, this film belongs to Duvall. Delivering an extremely moving, layered and downright exceptional Oscar-nominated performance as Judge Joseph Palmer; Duvall shows that after 50 years in the business he can still act better than most. Robert Downey Jr however…He wasn’t bad, he was just playing himself. Or he was playing Tony Stark. Same thing. You know, the cocky sarcastic wise-cracking hotshot who swaggers about with confidence and charisma. Yes, it’s a good act and is great for the Marvel Universe. But it’s time someone gave him something different to do. Either he isn’t getting the options of different characters, or he’s the least versatile actor since John Wayne. The supporting cast worked well with what they were given, but were largely ignored and given very little character development. It’s a shame; the great Vincent D'Onofrio was completely wasted. That being said, any development for the supporting characters would’ve just added more time onto the film – and at 2 hours and 15 minutes, it was already beginning to outstay its welcome. 

The Judge is a few films rolled into one. Firstly, and most obviously, it’s a courtroom drama through and through. This is the main genre it falls into. But, it’s also heavy on family drama and the effect of illness and age. Let’s look at each part in more detail. So firstly, we’ve all seen a courtroom drama – be it as a film, or during an episode of Law & Order. We all know the clichés. The Judge doesn’t shy away from them. Whilst the courtroom side of the story is beautifully shot with a gorgeously bleak colour palette, it’s all rather predictable and there’s nothing here to make it stand out. Despite the plot of the film, the courtroom scenes are not this film’s strongest element. So we move onto the family drama side of things. Although narratively it is unoriginal, the two Robert’s have fantastic chemistry together and the film shines during the scenes of them arguing (in one instance whilst a storm conveniently rages outside) or discovering newfound respect for one another.

One sequence dips its toe a little too deeply into cheesy sentimentality, with the brothers bonding over grainy old childhood home video footage. But it’s the relationship between Downey Jr and Duvall that drives the film. This leads us nicely into the concept of illness and age. There is one sequence in particular which I will focus on to discuss this. Whilst it is not a spoiler as such, I’d skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know ANYTHING about The Judge’s story. One scene features Hank looking after his father and assisting him as he a) vomits and b) shits himself. It’s an extremely powerful and hard-to-watch scene, and taken as part of a film about failing health and illness; it would’ve been Oscar bait. But I felt like it was out of place and in the wrong film here – as discussed, The Judge is mostly courtroom drama. This scene, although very well acted, surprised me with its inclusion in the film.

So, have I reached a verdict? The Judge is, as predicted, a rather underwhelming mediocre piece, so rammed with cliché that it’s bursting at the sides. It was also overly long and narratively a little muddled at times; perhaps including things that were unnecessary and omitting things that would’ve helped it. However, it features a phenomenal performance from Robert Duvall that would’ve surely had a chance at winning the Oscar if it wasn’t for JK Simmons showing us all how it’s done in Whiplash, and is beautifully shot. This isn’t enough to save it from its shortcomings though, and the film will be forgotten before you can say ‘case dismissed’.

No further comment, your honour! On the whole, The Judge is found guilty of mediocrity and is sentenced to a score of 3/5.


Sam Love

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