The novelist, Thomas Wolfe once wrote “you can’t go back home to your family”. What I don’t think Mr. Wolfe realized is that family is a life sentence, and regardless of ones feelings towards their family they may find themselves obligated to go back home.
Regardless of what people’s preconceived notions are, this is not a throwback to the days of John Grisham. It’ not a savvy legal thriller with hidden agendas and overtones of strong personal danger.
The court case is merely a background piece to a story about fathers and sons, estrangement, and the hope of reconciliation. Henry “Hank” Palmer is a successful Chicago-based attorney, who is going to the last place on earth he wants to be…Carlinville, IN.
The only thing that could make him consider returning to his boyhood home, after a VERY lengthy absence, would be to pay his final respects to his mother who has recently passed away.
Returning home, he finds the town and people pretty much as quaint as when he left. He also finds that lost time can make for a less than warm reception upon one’s return. Once his mother is laid to rest Hank is all too happy to escape from the palpable tension of being around his family and return to what he considers normal life.
He’s on the plane and ready for take off, he’s a rocket man, but fate LITERALLY comes calling. What could be urgent enough make him stay? Hank finds out that his father, Judge Joseph Palmer, is the lead suspect in a hit and run homicide.
Complicating things more is the fact that the victim is a former defendant that Judge Palmer sent to prison on a murder charge.
Rather than trust his father’s fate to the inept and naive defense attorney his father hires, Hank decides to take on his father’s case. He may feel prepared for the battle he faces in the courtroom, but is he ready for the one he will face outside of it?
One that will rehash long held feelings of bitterness and alienation between him and his family.
Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall provide better chemistry than Walter White. Whether they are bickering or sharing the odd sentimental moment, they deliver performances that are nothing less than honest and sincere.
As Hank Palmer, Robert Downey Jr. runs the gamut from cock-sure and smug to sentimental and genuinely human…and he does it effortlessly. His performance is laden with the charm and wry wit audiences have come to love, while still retaining his integrity as a dramatic actor.
In most cases a person like Hank would be very difficult to like, but Downey lends a truly redeeming quality to the character. Downey reminds us why we love him as an actor and as a person. Oh, and don’t call it a comeback, he’s been here for years.
Robert Duvall, in the role of Judge Joseph Palmer, is able to keep up with Downey stride for stride. He is very adept at conveying Judge Palmer’s strict sense of order. He’s a stubborn codger whose strict authoritarian veneer may be something of a defense mechanism for both he and his family. Despite the hard-hearted feel of the character, Duvall gives glimpses of sweetness, sentimentality, and human frailty that allow audiences to find the cranky old coot endearing.
At 83, Robert Duvall is still a master of his craft with no signs of letting up.
Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, and Billy Bob Thornton head up a supporting cast that help to supply the appropriate emotional triggers for Downey and Duvall’s performances. They all work well to develop the back stories for past sources of tension and turmoil in Hank’s life as well as creating some new ones he has yet to deal with.
David Dobkin was not only responsible for directing the film, but he also co-wrote the story on which the screenplay is based. Having a more comedic pedigree, he was able to show an effective command of the truly dramatic content in the film. Some moments that otherwise would have still held dramatic tension, were likely more humorous because of Downey’s acting style and delivery.
To Dobkins’ credit he allowed these moments to organically take their course rather than trying to tie Downey’s hands and forcing truly dramatic moments.
When you want a representation of small-town Indiana, where do you go? That’s right, you go to Massachusetts! The fictional Indiana town of Carlinville was shot on several locations around the state of Massachusetts, probably due to tax incentives. Indiana could stand in as Indiana if the governing agencies would be more accommodating, but I digress as that’s another article for another time.
The rural setting is still similar to many small towns in Indiana. Being the kind of town where everything is focused tightly at the center becoming sparse and open as you radiate outward. You know the kind of town, if you blink you’ll miss it.
After growing up in one, I found out just how true a statement that is.
Well folks, for me the verdict is in. I, the jury, find The Judge guilty! Guilty of featuring great performances and directing, and also demanding a true emotional investment from the audience. I will admit that I may be more susceptible to the appeal of a father and son story, having lost my father just three months ago.
Regardless, I still think that audiences will find the story and the performances both emotionally engaging and highly enjoyable.
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