As an actors’ showcase, The Judge scores high; if you enjoy watching Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, and/or Vincent D’Onofrio, you won’t be wasting the considerable time you invest. But the film bites off more than it can chew, trying to tackle a difficult father-son relationship, a complex family dynamic, a courtroom mystery-drama, the challenge of dealing with an aging parent, and a bittersweet look at returning to one’s hometown after many years away. It’s not surprising that three writers are credited, including director David Dobkin, but it’s a shame no one shaped the material into a more fluid and cohesive screenplay.
The charismatic Downey is well within his comfort zone playing a cocky attorney who defends high-profile miscreants but can’t keep his marriage together. When his mother dies he flies back to his Indiana hometown to face his unforgiving father, who has been the presiding judge there for decades. He reunites with his brothers (D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and strikes up a spark or two with his onetime girlfriend (Farmiga), but can’t make any headway with Dad. He’s about to head home when his father is arrested for murder… and the plot thickens.
There are many good moments and striking scenes in this sprawling movie (which has no reason to run well over two hours), but their effect is muted because the through-line of the story is so ill-defined. That said, it’s still rewarding to watch so many talented actors at the top of their game—including the underrated Vera Farmiga, who brings so much life to her character; The Girl Who Got Away.
Duvall is as commanding as ever, playing a man in his 70s (even though he’s actually a decade beyond that), and his face-offs with Downey are potent. D’Onofrio and Strong are also effective as siblings who share a troubled history with their brother.
The end result is a mixed bag. Great actors always tip the scales, but if justice were truly being served, The Judge would have had a tighter script.