‘The Judge’ review: A heartfelt relationship drama

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Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall in the courtroom during the murder trial in The Judge
Robert Downey Jr (Hank Palmer) and Robert Duvall (Judge Palmer) in The Judge

The Judge review in a nutshell

A touching family drama about estranged fathers and sons reconnecting. Takes a while to get going, and has unnecessary subplots that cause it to be a tad draggy at 2h 21mins. But a good watch nonetheless.

Click here or scroll to the bottom for where to watch The Judge.

Movie synopsis

Robert Downey Jr. is Hank Palmer, a hotshot big city lawyer who must confront the past and his strained relationship with his father — the town’s revered judge — when he returns home for his mother’s funeral. Truths come to light when ‘Judge’ (Robert Duvall) is accused of murder in a hit-and-run accident and Hank steps in to defend him. Along the way, he reconnects with the estranged family he left behind and his high school sweetheart (Vera Farmiga).

The Judge movie review (with little to no spoilers)

This two-hander by Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall is pretty good — definitely a movie with heart that is touching at parts. (Some parts, it definitely tries too hard, with deliberate framing to show estrangement and obvious emotional cues in the score, but the film means well.) A few months ago, I thought it would definitely be an awards contender, but it looks much less likely now, as critics didn’t like it that much. Sure, the film has its flaws, especially the completely unnecessary incestuous subplot with Leighton Meester, the daughter of Hank’s high school sweetheart (though at the time he didn’t know it), which caused the film to drag a little, though a friend of mine felt that it added humour. But overall, I thought it was decent and heartfelt.

Robert Downey Jr (Hank Palmer), Vincent D'Onofrio (Glen Palmer), Jeremy Strong (Dale Palmer) and Robert Duvall (Judge Joseph Palmer)
Robert Downey Jr (Hank Palmer), Vincent D’Onofrio (Glen Palmer), Jeremy Strong (Dale Palmer) and Robert Duvall (Judge Joseph Palmer) in The Judge

Both Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall give sterling performances — the former as a cocky big city lawyer with daddy issues, and the latter a harsh unyielding father, who happens to be the town’s judge, who has to grudgingly depend on his son to defend him in a murder charge. Still, RDJ is still essentially being “himself” here, as he has been in all his roles — I dare you *not* to see Tony Stark in the scene where he wears the Metallica t-shirt and goes no-arms cycling. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing — it’s fun and it’s his trademark: why get RDJ to do a role if you don’t want to see him be RDJ? — but it isn’t novel anymore. (I like that the screenwriters actually gave the way he speaks a name though: “hyperverbal vocabulary vomit thing”, which Vera Farmiga says when she and him are having that deep convo by the river bank. Best description ever.)

Robert Downey Jr (Hank Palmer) and Vera Farmiga (Samantha Powell) in The Judge
Robert Downey Jr (Hank Palmer) and Vera Farmiga (Samantha Powell) in The Judge

But Robert Duvall’s old man suffering the effects of old age and sickness was definitely powerful, and raw to watch. What differentiates this film from all others about fathers and sons having it out is that it’s also about children taking care of their parents in their old age. It’s a role that doesn’t allow for much pride, not when you’re shambling around, and pooping in your pants, which happens in one drastic scene where Judge Palmer shows uncontrollable weakness in front of his son, the person he wishes least to see him in such a moment. I read somewhere that Jack Nicholson turned down the role because of that scene. If that’s true, Robert Duvall deserves even more kudos for taking it up. The Academy recognised his efforts — he got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the film.

Robert Duvall as Judge Joseph Palmer
Robert Duvall as Judge Joseph Palmer in The Judge

The father-son relationship is the focus, not the murder trial, though the latter helps reveal why the former became estranged. All these elements have been seen before — I’m positive I’ve watched a movie with a similar court case, and there are tons of movies about fathers and sons not getting along. But it still moved me when we found out the reason why Hank’s father became so hard on him in the later years, when he used to be so loving — “I looked at him and I saw my boy,” a misguided trust that led to the heartbreaking statement: “I looked at you and I saw him.”

Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall as the estranged father-son pair
Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall as the estranged father-son pair in The Judge

I wish the film did better in the U.S., especially with all the high hopes RDJ and his wife, Susan Downey, for whom this drama is their first project under Team Downey, their joint production company, had pinned on it. RDJ has even mentioned that this was the kind of film he has always wanted to make. I thought his star power would be enough to draw people into cinemas, but apparently not. Now studios will be much less willing to let him take risks and help him finance films that aren’t Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes related, and nobody wants to be pigeon-holed like that.

Where to watch The Judge

Streaming services: The Judge is not on Netflix Singapore or US, Amazon Prime Video or Hulu. It’ll most likely be on HBO Max when the service launches on 27 May in the U.S.

Rent/Buy: Get it on iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, FandangoNOW, Microsoft, Redbox

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