Family court drama (The Judge movie review)

In David Dobkin’s movie “The Judge” Robert Downey Jr. plays a cynical and incredibly intelligent lawyer, who has gained fame as a very effective attorney of very rich and very fraudulent people. In the opening scene we see Hank’s Palmer’s fight with his client that reveals both – his insane talent and black humour. The story reaches the edge of family melodrama, but what’s important brilliant, tartly funny dialogues save the whole movie from a rather poor fate of tearjerker. The main action begins when the protagonist goes to his home town to attend his mother’s funeral and confronts with his two brothers and father – the titled judge (very good Robert Duvall).

Hank’s father is a walking embodiment of justice – he is a law-abiding, incorruptible old judge, who at the court remains ribald and professional at the same time. Joseph also seems to be a reincarnation of Old Testament God that easily gets angry and punishes even for the smallest of sins. He is authoritarian and frigid, which is particularly visible in the scenes of his sons’ childhood reminiscences. The judge represents the old, conservative order, in which honour is more important than freedom and after-mortal heritage is something that makes life worth of living. It’s not very hard to guess – even without knowing the back story – why Joseph is already dead to Frank. Nevertheless, when the young lawyer finds out that his father is being accused of an intentional murder, he decides to do anything that possible to keep him away from the prison. In Dobkin’s movie the court trial happens in parallel to some kind of psychoanalytical therapy, during which the father and the son are working through their mutual prejudices and regrets.

What before was unspoken, finds its more or less dramatic vent. “The Judge” is focuses on a very intimate drama of two strong individuals that have to reject their cynical masks to find a way to reconnect. What’s important, the movie is fulfilled with tragic and traumatic twists, but the director doesn’t turn into a melodramatic story of an old man who at the end of his life regains his son’s love. On the contrary – Joseph and Hank seem to be finding forgiveness for each other, but their relation remains tough till the very end. The movie generally is a bit too contrived and the director goes too far in multiplying dramatic threads, but the story of father and son is very powerful and makes the entire movie a deep and devastating illustration of a relation with a totalitarian parent and his complicated ways of showing and proving care.

Joseph’s profession also isn’t meaningless, because the dramaturgy of this family drama is built on the opposition between public and private spheres of the judge’s life and their mutual influences. Being aware of failing as a father, the old man looks for a symbolical redemption – that’s why he gives a second chance to a young criminal who won’t take it and will turn into a brutal monster. The director is using the mechanism of projection and transposition to show that focusing on the vicarious object doesn’t solve problems, but only reproduces them. Only conformation with reality can set you free.

“The Judge” is composed of clichés. The director is using schemes of showing aging and drama of mortal diseases that destroys both – body and mind and of constructing a court drama with a cynical lawyer on the first plan, but – what’s important and what’s saves the entire movie from falling into the trap of obviousness – many of those scenes end with funny culminating points that discharge the tension. For example – the fragment in which the son is helping his father in taking a shower turns into a brilliant scene of two adults making up ridiculous stories to stop Hank’s  little daughter of opening the door and seeing the scary ugliness of life.

The second plan of “The Judge” is really expanded, probably even too rich in threads: divorce, old love with a child of unknown father, responsibility for brother’s disability and broken sport career, etc. Sometimes you can get impression that the director is afraid of being too boring and that’s why he is keep adding new dramatic chapters to the main story. What’s interesting, those threads don’t overshadow the main problem, but it’s also hard to find different reason for their presence than simple creator’s fear of losing the tension. Nevertheless, at the “The Judge” is an intense family drama that – thanks to sharp dialogues and brilliant, subtle humour – slightly excesses the level of schematic bitter-sweet tale that melts hearts.