The Judge stars Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. I went to see it back in October in large part because I like RDJ as Iron Man in the Marvel movies, but haven’t really seen him in many other things. I’ve also seen and enjoyed his Sherlock Holmes movies, but that’s about it.
In the broadest outline of its story, that of a prodigal son returning home, The Judge is not unique. In the details of the plot and the execution by the actors, however, I found it to be a very interesting and deeply emotional movie.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Henry (Hank) Palmer, a rich, successful and arrogant Chicago defense attorney. The movie starts with him being pulled away from his superficially perfect life by his mother’s death, bringing him for the first time in decades back to the small, rural Indiana town where he grew up.
There, he is greeted lovingly by his brothers, Glen and Dale, and almost as a stranger by his father, Joseph Palmer, who is the town’s judge. It is this estrangement from his father that has clearly kept Hank away all these years, and although he is happy to see his brothers, it is clear that even the single day of his mother’s funeral is too long to be back in his hometown. He packs up and heads out the next morning, in spite of his brothers’ clear desire for him to stay a bit longer. His father makes no effort to mend the breach, though, going so far as to mock Hank’s failing marriage and upcoming divorce. Although the judge is deeply grief-stricken over his own wife’s death and having a difficult time dealing with it, this is obviously meant to drive his middle son away again.
It nearly succeeds, for Hank is already waiting on the plane that will take him back to Chicago when he receives a call from his brother Glen. They had all noticed damage on their father’s much-loved car that morning, and it was Judge Palmer himself who drove it last, the night before just hours after his wife’s funeral. The damage turns out to have been from a hit-and-run involving another person, not merely property…and the person in question is dead.
In spite of everything, Hank returns, and fights his way through his father’s pride in an effort to both find out what actually happened the night of the funeral and to then defend his father in court. Further complications arise when it turns out that the dead man was one of the few poor judgments that Judge Palmer ever made; years earlier, he had given the man a lenient sentence, and a young woman ended up dead because of it. Was the hit-and-run truly an accident, or was it the town judge taking justice into his own hands? He claims to not remember what happened; is that a lie, or has something truly caused him to forget? What could be happening to him that he is unwilling to tell even his own sons?
I’ll be vague from here on in the interests of not spoiling the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. For me, the story ended up being one about the necessity of honesty and truth. Hank has not been honest with himself about his own life – he is not truly happy with his current position and failing marriage, with his young daughter being one of the only positive things he has. Opening himself to that truth paves the way for him to consider other options, other paths that might make him happier. Judge Palmer struggles with his pride and dignity, keeping back information vital to his own defense, and thereby setting himself up to receive a wrong sentence. He struggles in finding the strength to tell the truth, both in court and to his family. There are old issues and hurts between the three Palmer brothers that have been left unaddressed all the years that Hank was gone. There are other relationships that Hank walked away from so many years ago, that still lack understanding and closure.
As each of the characters begins to accept the truth about what has happened in the past, or is happening now, and as they start to be honest with each other, things start to improve. It is not an easy transition to make, and at times is quite painful. In spite of that all the characters, and especially Hank and his father, slowly come to realize that they are moving in a better direction. The movie ends on a bittersweet, but overall hopeful note, and I definitely enjoyed it.