The Sommer Series: A review of “The Judge”

Neliana Ferraro

Photo credit: Village Roadshow Pictures

Written by Sommer Rusinski

Long live Robert Downey, Jr.

The Judge is the story of successful, fast-talking lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) who returns to his hometown for his mother’s funeral, and discovers that his estranged father and town judge (Robert Duvall) has been suspected of murder. After setting out to defend his father, he reconnects with family, past lovers, and the little town he ran from all those years ago.

The Judge is solely dependent on its actors. Robert Downey, Jr. has said that this is the movie he grew up wanting to make, and the proof is in the pudding. His portrayal of Hank is nothing we haven’t seen from him before; rich, smart, cocky, flippant wit. Classic RDJ. However, there is a great depth and sadness in Hank, and the shame of his father’s disappointment is held right behind the eyes.

Not only does this film boast Downey, Jr. and Duvall, it has the most talented supporting cast I’ve seen in a long time. Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, and Dax Shepard have expertly fleshed out their characters with enough subtleties to keep us engaged throughout the otherwise long 141-minute runtime. The script was a little saccharine and Hollywood-ified, but these actors knew better. Their scenes are honest and raw, and the nuances they bring to each role make us overlook the sometimes-cheesy dialogue.

Director David Dobkin (The Change-Up, Wedding Crashers) captured lightning.

These people were acting their asses off, and more importantly, they were playing. The energy and excitement that these actors had while working with each other was palpable and translated into deep emotion for the audience. There was a buzz in the theater as the credits rolled that can only be attributed to being in the presence of passion and witnessing people doing what they love the most.

Photo credit: Village Roadshow Pictures

The big dramatic moments are great and honest and true to life, often undercutting the solemnity with humor and never dipping into melodrama. The only issue with these scenes is the inexperience of the director in shooting them. Dobkin is used to comedy, where you can basically get away with any crash-zoom and whip pan you want. When it comes to shooting a drama, especially a family story that relies on tenderness, you can’t get fancy. The shots are supposed to enhance the feeling, not detract from it, and there were more than a few times in the film where I was distracted by an exaggerated camera movement. Movies shouldn’t tell you how to feel. Great films simply lay all the cards out on the table and trust themselves and the audience does the rest.

But the performances trumped all, especially a particularly moving shower scene that was painfully real and delicate but still managed to have us chuckling our way into catharsis. Every film strives to blend drama and comedy so seamlessly, but few hit their mark as well as The Judge. Definitely worth a watch.