Relationships on trial in Grisham-style drama

The Judge (15A)

Robert Downey Jr has been in and out of movies (and rehab) more times than you can shake a stick at, but he seems to have resolved most of his issues in recent years.

In this John Grisham-style courtroom drama, he reminds us of what we always liked about him in the first place: his ability to make potentially unsavoury characters likeable.
He plays unscrupulous lawyer Hank Palmer. He’s about to get divorced from his unfaithful wife and sue for custody of his daughter when he hears his mother has died.

He specialises in getting wealthy white collar criminals off – “Innocent people can’t afford me” – but no sooner has he buried his mother than he’s confronted with his biggest challenge of all: defending his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), a judge, on a charge of murder. 

On the night after his wife died, Joseph ran over a man he once convicted of murder. Was this deliberate? He says he can’t remember. Was he drunk or is he suffering from incipient dementia?


Pretty soon into the movie we realise that, far more important than the courtroom drama is the story behind it – the sundering of the bond between Downey and Duvall which, ironically, the murder rap may heal. But this won’t be soon. For starters, grumpy old coot Duvall wants to play by the rules of the ‘old school’, not Downey’s slick tactics that have served him so well in the past.

Downey also has to re-build a relationship with his more highly-principled brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) whose baseball career he wrecked years ago in a different kind of car crash than his father had. A younger brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), is semi-autistic. Also in the frame is Downey’s childhood sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga) whose daughter might be Downey’s. (When Downey has an encounter with her, the possibility of incest is raised.)

The Judge is a formula movie that tries to merge two genres (the courtroom movie and the homecoming one) with only limited success. It has some moving moments, particularly those concerning the indignities of old age, but also many schmaltzy ones. It tugs at the heart-strings a tad too stridently at times and also could have done with a half-hour chopped off the 141-minute running time.

Still, it draws another great performance from Duvall as a man facing all forms of debility, both physical and psychological. Billy Bob Thornton plays the token cynical prosecutor.