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In The Judge, Iron Man Soars
in a Different “Suit”
(Sorry, I Couldn’t Resist
a Punny Title)
Fathers and Sons: A theme that echoes through some of our most seminal stories, from Hamlet to Star Wars. It’s also a guaranteed way to make me cry (See: Finding Nemo.) The Judge deftly maneuvers this well-trod theme by busting the walls of genre to find fresh, vibrant truth. It fuses comedy with pathos, Arthur-Miller-family-drama with John-Grisham-legal-thriller, cinematic beauty and gritty realism, and ties it all together with masterful performances from its leading Roberts: Duvall and Downey Jr.
Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is a successful Chicago lawyer with a knack for bending the rules in defense of rich scumbags. This prodigal son returns to his small Indiana hometown for his Mother’s funeral and is welcomed with a terse handshake by his Father, the titular Judge (Duvall.) He’s a hard, simple man with a no-nonsense respect for the letter of the law. He and Hank are wildly different yet share an acerbic brilliance that drives each other crazy. The kettle of family drama quickly begins to boil. As producer Susan Downey put it in a post-film talkback “The Mother is the pin in the grenade. Once she’s gone… boom.”
Before Hank can once again flee this dysfunction, he’s begrudgingly drawn in to defend The Judge against a murder investigation following a hit-and-run car accident. The story launches into a courtroom suspense thriller, reminiscent of A Few Good Men or The Rainmaker, with copious twists and turns. But the film truly shines in portraying the complex dynamic between Hank and his unwilling client, The Judge. Each of their two-hand scenes are positively electric. Of particular note are an emotional confrontation in the midst of a tornado and a bathroom moment that is gut-wrenching and sadly hilarious.
I’d happily watch Robert Downey Jr. read the phone book. I can think of few stars with his virtuoso ability to conjure laughs and tears with the same sentence. His usual wit and rapscallion charm are on full display, but so is volcanic bitterness and raw vulnerability. Duvall is in top form as well, alternating between gruff powerhouse and a feebly dying Lear; a sad old man looking back on his life and legacy with unflinching pride, yet deep regret. The film rests securely on the shoulders of their complex, nuanced performances, but I’d be remiss not to mention Vincent D’Onofrio’s outstanding turn as Hank’s older brother, a former high school baseball star whose future was tragically cut short and now runs a local tire shop.
The Judge wrestles with immense, classical themes by capturing simple moments of personal truth and spinning them into a universal, timeless story of parents and children. It’s hilarious, heart-warming and heart-breaking, and ultimately cathartic. Go see it on the big screen to fully enjoy Janusz Kaminski’s lush cinematography. Bring your (grownup) loved ones, a box of tissues, and share a drink after to talk about your own Dad. Rated R for language including some sexual references.