Now Playing: “The Judge” weaves family drama into a murder thriller

Jackson French

For a movie with not one, but two contemptible lead characters, “The Judge” is surprisingly solid. Robert Downey Jr. plays a lawyer named Hank Palmer, who’s no different from the irritating character he portrays in every movie. Robert Duvall plays his estranged father — a brash, hard-headed judge. With two detestable characters at the helm, “The Judge” seems destined to fail but saves itself with an unexpected level of character development and emotional power.

The other main problem with “The Judge” is its predictability. When Hank goes to Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral, it sets into motion a series of formulaic events that bears no innovation or surprise. Back in his hometown, he defends his estranged father in a murder trial and engages in a romance with a woman from his past. There’s nothing that happens in this movie that can’t be seen from a mile away. 

Though the strengthening of the father-son relationship during the trial couldn’t be more expected, this is exactly what saves “The Judge.” The conflict between these two realistically-flawed characters is enthralling and intense. Downey Jr. and Duvall are completely convincing in both their arguments and in calmer moments. Vicious shouting matches and intimate bonding are both handled well. The combination builds into a story of redemption that evolves alongside the trial, which is the only part of the plot that holds any level of surprise. The older Palmer’s lapses in memory provide a veil of mystery that lends some tension to the proceedings.


“The Judge” follows a worn and familiar path. Despite having a beginning, middle and end that can be easily guessed, the story flows well and makes you care about two characters that seemed impossible to like at the get-go.