Rated R. Running time: 2 hour 21 min.
Our content ratings (0-10): Violence 1; Language 5; Sex/Nudity 2.
Our star rating (0-5): 4
Honor your father and your mother…
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother”—this is the first commandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth.”
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
The film’s title character is Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), for over 40 years a legendary figure in the southern Indiana town of Carlinville, Indiana. The law-abiding citizens love him, and the families of those whom he has sentenced to prison loathe him. Also among the latter group is his middle son Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a slick Chicago defense lawyer earning big bucks getting criminals off the hook. The Judge returns his son’s ill will, because he despises Hank’s sleazy law practice. Father and son have not communicated since Hank set out on his own 20 years ago.
It is the death of the family matriarch, Mrs. Palmer, that brings son Hank back to town, even though he is about to go through a messy divorce with his unfaithful trophy wife. His 7-year-old daughter Emma (Emma Tremblay) wants to go with him to see the grandfather she has never met, but her father refuses. When he arrives for the funeral, Hank and the Judge are distant and formal with each other. More warm is the reunion with Hank’s older brother Glenn (Vincent D’Onofrio) and younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong). Hank can hardly wait for the funeral to be over so he can get out of town. He is haunted by too many unpleasant memories.
As the film unfolds we learn that Glenn had been a promising young baseball player, but never got his shot at professional baseball because of a tragic incident when Hank and Glenn were teenagers. It’s one of the main reasons Hank and the Judge are so cold toward each other. There are many challenges in this family. Dale is mentally challenged but is very adept with the old-fashioned movie camera that he frequently carries with him. A series of Dale’s vintage movie clips, in which their beautiful mother is central, trigger memories in Hank of happier times. There are also scenes showing the warm relationship that Hank then enjoyed with his father—but this is getting ahead of the story.
After the funeral, Hank is back at the Indianapolis airport just settling into his airplane seat for the return flight when he receives an urgent call from Glenn. Their father has been charged with the murder of one of the men he had once sentenced. Earlier Hank had noticed a smashed headlight and a trace of blood on the Judge’s car—one that the possessive father had never let anyone else drive. Hank and his brothers had thought nothing of it at the time, but when the police examine the blood, it matches that of the man who had been run down on the road the night before.
The Judge refuses Hank’s offer of services, preferring to entrust his case to local attorney C. P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard), whose practice is apparently so small that he also runs an antique store. Not only does the overly nervous Kennedy vomit on the courthouse steps before entering for the pretrial hearing, but during the session makes numerous mistakes. Hank’s attempts to prompt the inept lawyer draws down upon himself the wrath of the presiding judge who orders him escorted out of the courtroom.
Eventually, of course, Hank does become the chief counselor. The Judge refuses his son’s suggestion for a plea bargain because he does not want to leave a tarnished heritage. Hank finds himself up against the out of town prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), a man eager to take on the hotshot defense lawyer because he despises him and believes it is an open and shut case. There is a surveillance video of the Judge and the victim in a convenience store and a later one of the man walking out and down the road while the Judge drives his car in the opposite direction—then a few minutes later the video shows the car passing by in the direction of the victim. This contradicts the story the Judge had told the police.
When he takes the stand the Judge is not very helpful in his defense, saying that he does not remember what happened after he drove away. Later, during Dickham’s cross examination, the Judge makes some admissions that could completely destroy the heritage he is trying to preserve.
During the trial Hank reconnects not only with his two brothers, but also with his high school sweetheart Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who owns a local restaurant. As she tells him how she managed to save in order to buy the place she declares that she could never leave such a beautiful town. Little Emma also comes for a short visit, and Hank is surprised at how lovingly the old man receives and relates to her. We also learn the basic reason Hank has been so upset with his father for so many years, as well as a secret the Judge has been keeping from everyone.
The two leads are at the top of their form, each with several scenes that display their thespian skills. Even more powerful than the trial scenes is one in which the son comes upon the old man taken ill in the bathroom, having just soiled himself. The son tenderly helps his father to his feet, the two walking through the pool of excretement; the two climb into the shower where Hank tenderly washes him clean. A little after this, the Judge says something to Hank that bridges the chasm between them. One of the last scenes is of Hank staring at his father’s chair for a long time. No dialogue or voice over, just Downey’s face showing that his memories are no longer bitter but respectful and loving ones.
Director David Dobkin does wonders with his cast and the screenplay by Nick Schenk and Bill Dubuque. The cinematography by Janusz Kaminski (Schindler’s List) adds to the drama with light coming through windows back-lighting the characters. The arc of the story is familiar—returning black sheep finds renewal from reuniting with estranged family—but some of the details are surprising.
I have enjoyed Robert Downey in the Marvel Comics films, but is so good to see him in an intelligent, believable story! His spiritual journey from arrogant jerk to caring son is an inspiring one. It is interesting to see on Metacritic that the critics’ reaction to the film ranges from 100 down to 12, so don’t let your decision about seeing this film be overly influenced by a negative review you might read. The film offers ample material to think about or discuss our past relationships with our fathers and the heritages they leave us.
This review will appear in the Nov. 2014 issue of Visual Parables along with a set of discussion questions.