Movie Review: The Judge  

Originally written for the UWM Post here:

We watch Robert Downey Jr. watch old family movies, and then Bon Iver plays. We watch Robert Downey Jr. look at an empty spinning chair, and then Bon Iver plays. This movie dares you to feel.

A more cynical man would call this movie failed Oscar bait.

The film contains legacy, family, the Midwest, lawyers, guilt, punishment, comic relief that does not really work, and tearful, poorly lit basement brooding sessions. Along with a small almost incestual subplot and an ambiguously handicapped character that adds little to nothing.

All this in the Robert Downey Jr. produced passion project, The Judge.

All the pieces of this film never quite line up. Some things just feel off, especially when it comes to the look of the film.

A drive through a cornfield in an early scene has a rough CG quality. Later, the large wall-windows of a restaurant overlook a simulated looking mill and river. Things are shot disproportionately close. Anytime the camera opens on a naturalistic outdoor scene things are a treat, but the amount of time spent in courtrooms is a little bit of a drag visually. The city courtroom early on in the film looks fine. But the Indiana courtroom is lit in a perpetual “Old Testament, Shekinah Glory” way, with a blinding white light pouring in from improbable angles.

Between the sound design, the interpersonal stakes, and the setting, the film seems to be going for a naturalism that is just not reflected in all the visual aspects of the film.

For all my snark, I have to admit the core emotional drama is actually pretty tightly integrated into the characterization of the father and son relationship at the heart of this movie. It’s just that it gets bogged down in the almost two and a half hours this movie requires. The number of sub-plots ranging from Palmer’s elementary aged daughter visiting Indiana to him possibly having another daughter he does not know about is messy. He later meets her in a bar. The inclusion of a youngest Palmer brother, who is a mentally handicapped amateur filmographer, is to allow us to watch a video he compiles. It acts as a flash-back sequence that the characters can watch with us.

The question is always, what do you as a viewer want? Do you want to watch Robert Downey Jr. do his Robert Downey Jr. thing? He is smart. He is witty. The ladies love him. He is a troublemaker with a squishy sensitive beating heart underneath it all. His character’s name is Hank Palmer but that barely matters. This character fits with the preconception of what a Downey Jr. character will be like, thanks to his last six action films that audiences are familiar with.

Every other character can be referred to in some way as they relate to Palmer. There is Robert Duvall’s Joseph Palmer, Hank’s father and the titular Judge. He is suspected of murdering a man he once sentenced. Hank is a lawyer, so of course eventually he defends his father in a climactic courtroom speak-a-thon where deep truths and personal baggage come to a head.

The Judge is currently playing at the Oriental Theatre.


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Originally written for the UWM Post as a “Throwback Thursday” article about an influential or beloved film here: High School literature teachers have always been in the unique position of... Continue →