Movie Review: 'The Judge' Starring Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall

Get the details of Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall's new film.

ByABC News
October 10, 2014, 1:42 PM
Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall star in "The Judge."
Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall star in "The Judge."
Claire Folger/Warner Bros.

— -- Starring Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga

Rated R

Four-and-a-half out of five stars

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a cocky guy. He’s a high-profile defense attorney in Chicago and the type who will “accidentally” urinate on a prosecutor who confronts him in the courthouse bathroom during a trial break. Hank’s got a beautiful wife, a gorgeous house and an adorable daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay). But with the exception of Lauren, it’s all window dressing. Hank’s marriage is falling apart and he’s practically estranged from his parents and two brothers.

That quickly changes when his mother dies, and Hank heads back to his childhood home in Indiana. Hank visits the courthouse, where he sits up in the rafters and watches the Honorable Joseph Palmer dish out his brand of tough justice. As you’ve probably figured out, the judge is Hank’s father. What we quickly learn is there’s no love lost between these two. Joseph isn’t just a stern judge, he’s a stern dad. His three sons don’t even call him dad, they just refer to him as “Judge.”

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The morning of the funeral, everyone grabs breakfast at the local diner, where we meet Sam (the always impressive Vera Farmiga), who’s working behind the counter. Wouldn’t you know it, she happens to be Hank’s ex-girlfriend. There’s an instant, though uncomfortable chemistry. In fact, throughout the film, Downey imbues this small-town-boy-turned-city-slicker with a steady undercurrent of uncomfortable, nervous tension while managing to maintain his slick veneer.

The movie shifts into high gear when the judge is accused of intentionally hitting and killing Mark Blackwell with his car the night of his wife’s funeral. More than 20 years earlier, the judge gave Blackwell a light sentence for committing a violent act against his girlfriend, whom Blackwell then killed shortly after getting out of jail.

This is when Duvall takes over the movie. His performance at age 83 -- or any age, really -- is a tour de force of nuance, stoicism and pent-up rage. It’s a sight to behold.

The judge does not want Hank to defend him in court, so he hires a country bumpkin attorney (Dax Shepard in arguably his best role to date) who’s only ever defended one client. Making the task even more difficult is the special prosecutor brought in for this case: Dwight Dickham, played by Billy Bob Thornton.

Hank and the judge’s combustible relationship plays authentic and relatable on so many levels. You don’t have be a son or a father -- you could be a mother and daughter, sister and brother, aunt, uncle or nephew. Hank’s relationship with Sam is almost as compelling, but for different reasons. There’s a lot of drama here, but it’s the type of conflict that keeps us interested until the very end. Did the judge really murder Blackwell? Will this dysfunctional family ever function? Director and co-writer David Dobkin does a fine job keeping us guessing.

The verdict? "The Judge" is excellent.