For over 50 years, Steve Crum has written reviews and features for newspapers, magazines and websites, and appeared on radio and TV shows regarding entertainment media. In addition to his years of service on the Governing Board of the Kansas City Film Critics Circle, his Crum on Film weekly column was awarded 1st Place in Kansas and Missouri newspapers via Kansas City Press Club/Heart of America journalism awards. Nearly 2,000 of his film reviews have been posted on Rotten Tomatoes.
Friday, October 10, 2014
‘The Judge’ features Oscar caliber work by Duvall, Downey Jr.
By Steve Crum
The Judge is the best movie of 2014, so far. Plus—without a doubt—both Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. are likely to be nominated for Best Actor Oscars. That boldly said, it is still early October. Since movie studios release the bulk of their Academy Award contenders in November and December, The Judge is sure to have serious competition.
To be honest, like the multitude of viewers, I have been watching TV ad after TV ad promoting The Judge, and perceived it to be a predictable drama. Father and son are estranged, and reluctantly team to overcome a crisis. No spoiler here since such is shown in the trailer. Indeed the film’s weakness lies in its cliché premise. We have seen it many times before: family members are at odds, but end up in loving embrace. Conflict resolution time. That is not exactly how The Judge goes, but the general direction is correct.
However, huge positives kick in. What we have are two bullheaded central characters, Judge Joseph Palmer and Henry Palmer, brilliantly played by Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. Decades ago, son Henry (aka Hank) left his Carlinville, Indiana hometown for the big city to pursue what developed into a successful career as a criminal attorney. Henry's marriage produced a young daughter, nicely played by Sarah Lancaster. His father, aka Joe aka Judge, continued his local judgeship. Henry's brothers still live in Carlinville: Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale (Jeremy Strong).
There is also Judge’s wife, whom we never see. At the outset of the film, she has died, bringing Henry back home for the first time in many years. That essentially sets the plot, well written by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque.
A tragic circumstance occurs following the funeral, directly involving Judge Palmer. A local lawyer (portrayed by Dax Shepard) is not qualified to handle the judge’s defense, so Henry steps in. Then there is the high pressure, appropriately named prosector, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton). Then there are Henry’s times spent outside of court with former girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga).
The movie really ignites during the off-trial sequences, particularly telling and stressful scenes between Henry and his father. There are some great takes involving the three brothers as well. D’Onofrio is definitely Oscar worthy for Best Supporting. Farmiga’s bittersweet performance should receive accolades as well. What a great ensemble cast led by the terrific Duvall, arguably the best motion picture actor of our time, who anchors the film.
The Judge is tragic, funny, frustrating, and heartbreaking. For director David Dobkin, best known for fluff flicks like Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus, The Judge is a major career redirection. He handles it well.