The Verdict on Robert Downey Jr.’s “The Judge”

Throughout his long acting career, Robert Downy Jr. is best known for playing the superhero Iron Man, but his most recent performance in The Judge is sure to reinvigorate Downy Jr.’s image as a serious actor.

Interrupted by a phone call from his brother relaying news that his mother had passed away, successful but arrogant lawyer Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) exits a Chicago courtroom for his childhood home in rural Indiana. As he travels, we learn that his marriage is crumbling and his relationship with his daughter, Lauren, is strained. The audience can quickly gather that Hank has a lot of animosity towards his childhood home, and is extremely reluctant to go there.

The three Palmer brothers, Glenn, Dale, and Hank, are reunited at their mother’s funeral. Glenn has a family and business in town, and Dale seems to be socially awkward and married to his camera. After several references to “The Judge,” we meet this infamous character in the form of Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), a serious local judge for over four decades and patriarch of the Palmer family.

Although happy to see his sons after so long, The Judge greets Hank with a stiff handshake, which infuriates him. Pieces of his past slowly unfold the longer he stays with his family. It is revealed to the audience that Hank and his brother Glenn were involved in a terrible car accident as teenagers. As a result, Glenn’s promising future as a professional baseball player was shattered along with his arm, and the boys’ father harbored resentment towards Hank, blaming him entirely.

The audience also learns that the Palmer past is a hard one. The Judge once let a young man in court off easy for a crime because he saw reflections of Hank in him. Unfortunately, the young man was released from the short sentence and murdered a young girl, revealing that Hank’s father is so harsh with him out of love and a fear that Hank would become a felon.

Hank has reached the last straw in terms of his relationship with his father, and decides to leave Indiana. A call from the police station stops him when Judge Palmer is suddenly called in for questioning about the murder of a town degenerate, Mr. Blackwell, who was recently released from prison. This shocking and unexpected twist is definitely one of the reasons to consider The Judge an “edge of your seat” movie, but it certainly isn’t the only one.

The Judge is a prime suspect in the murder of Mr. Blackwell. Enough evidence, including the victim’s blood on Palmer’s car and a gas station security video showing Palmer driving after Blackwell, constituted the case going to trial. Perplexed by the situation and grasping for answers, Hank stays to watch the trial unfold. Although his father is rather calm about the situation, his family is utterly devastated. The Judge envisions himself being represented in the trial by an ‘honest’ lawyer, in this case a local bookstore owner and lawyer portrayed by Dax Shephard, whom Hank thinks is a complete joke.

A joke is right—Shephard’s character does not have the stomach to handle the case or go up against the other cutthroat attorney, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Hank is seething, watching his father being represented by such a fool, and argues emphatically to represent him instead. An unexpected union springs up between father and son, and for once their relationship seems to calm.

The trial is the bulk of the movie, but we are also introduced to Vera Farmiga as Hank’s high school sweetheart Samantha, who reveals more of his inability to hold onto important relationships. Hank’s daughter Lauren is also reintroduced. She is told by her father that “Grandpa” isn’t nice and will not do fun things with her like her other grandfather does. Shocked beyond belief, Hank watches as The Judge greets Lauren with open arms and tender grandfatherly warmth. The two become close friends, much to Hank’s disbelief.

Eventually, the unpredictable Indiana weather brings a tornado, which not only disrupts the local town but the Palmer family’s symbiosis. All hell breaks loose when The Judge and Hank argue and start a brawl, having to be separated by their family members. Tensions are at an all time high, but once the tornado passes, so do the harsh exchanges.

More secrets are peppered into the film when Hank learns his father is undergoing secret chemotherapy treatments for cancer. We see the two men develop a certain quiet closeness in their shared knowledge of the condition as the trial continues.

From the very beginning I was hooked on the film, with its superior acting and unpredictable plot. Downy Jr. perfectly plays an aggravated and arrogant attorney with a complicated relationship with Duvall’s Judge.

The entire trial is like a labyrinth: secrets are revealed intermittently and you really develop a certain connection with the characters. Albeit the sick irony of a judge on the other side of the bench, the film becomes so much more than a murder trial; it is a representation of a broken family coming together during one of the most tragic events of their lives, and eventually finding peace within themselves.