The Judge

Hollywood loves small-town America. Its character has changed over the years and its inhabitants are no longer squeaky clean – Atticus Finch now gets high – but for all the wisecracks with which city sophisticates lambast it, it is still clung to as the place where the nation’s core values remain stubbornly alive and well. Judge Palmer (Robert Duvall) has held court at Hicksville, Indiana, for forty-two years. Prodigal son Hank (Robert Downey Jr) is a slick Chicago defence lawyer.

Hank goes home to attend the funeral of his mother and is called upon to stay when the judge is faced with a murder charge after running down in his Cadillac a released crim with whom he has history. The screenplay, by Nick Schenck (Gran Torino) and Bill Dubuque, is a watertight setup of weights and counterbalances, light and shade, and an ingenuousness that never falters into hollow cliche.

A slow-burn intrigue that evolves into a highly charged courtroom drama, the great strength of David Dobkin’s film lies in the adversarial pairing of the two leads. Downey Jr is at first a bit too flip, and you fear that he will just regurgitate the smart-arsed Tony Stark of Ironman, while, likewise, Duvall initially appears to be simply doing his cantankerous codger thing. But, seasoned actors that they are, they bring out the best in each other as Hank comes to understand his dad’s old-school reverence for justice at the same time as the ailing judge begins to appreciate the lawyerly achievements of his estranged middle son.

An outstanding support cast – Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong as Hank’s brothers, Vera Farmiga as the girl who never left town, and Billy Bob Thornton on auto as the prosecuting attorney – and a beautiful sense of nostalgia created by Super 8 footage of the family when Mom was alive, all help to underline the basic truths that we neglect at our peril. Mainstream cinema can often serve to reinforce those truths – as it does here. A smart movie with a ton of heart.

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