Although in real life as we call it, most trials, even criminal trials, are deadly dull affairs, with long, tedious interrogations of witnesses, repeated inquiries about minor points, quibbles over legal minutiae, and often incomprehensible discussions of scientific or technical matters, much of it guaranteed to confuse or anaesthetize jurors.
On the stage and screen, however, trials provide genuine entertainment, capitalizing on the restricted setting, itself much like a theater, the engaging dialectic of prosecution and defense, and of course the tension of an eagerly awaited verdict.
While it also adds yet another chapter to the grand book of cinematic jurisprudence, "The Judge" examines a number of other stories and issues only indirectly connected to its familiar courtroom sequences. Its central story of a veteran judge accused of murder opens up other stories, making the defense of the judge the means of introducing the history of a troubled family, and in particular revealing the special tensions between a father and a son.
Robert Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a hotshot Chicago criminal attorney with the properly cynical attitude of a man who realizes the guilt of his clients; if they were innocent, he says, they couldn't afford him. Informed in the middle of a trial that his mother has died, he returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana, a place he was delighted to escape. His return, however, entangles him in a number of emotional problems, most of them revolving around his relationship with his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), the judge of the title.
For reasons that emerge later in the film, Hank's estrangement from his family derives from his bitter resentment of his cold, harsh father. He learns that even as an adult a return to a parental home becomes a reliving of the past, a reversion to something uncomfortably like childhood all over again. He and his father, a martinet both at home and in the courtroom, argue angrily, expressing hatred and disappointment in the harshest terms.
Hank also picks up other threads from his past, renewing his relationship with his older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), a once promising ballplayer, and his developmentally disabled young brother Dale (Jeremy Strong), a sweet innocent who films everything with his 8mm camera. He meets his old girlfriend Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who reminds him not only of their lost love but also of his misdeeds and the personal inadequacies that explain something of his present predicament. In a town that appears to exceed its quota of crude yokels, he glibly holds his own against a gaggle of sullen brutes, dopey thugs reminiscent of the high school bullies of his youth.
The story reaches its climax when the judge, suffering from terminal cancer, is accused of murder in a hit-and-run accident, and Hank finds it necessary to defend him. Mixing humor and sadness like the film itself, the trial reveals some wonderfully perceptive and blithely cynical views of juries, witnesses, and the process of justice itself. Working with a local incompetent who practices law from his antique shop, Hank displays a surprising and brilliantly accurate method of selecting just the kind of jurors suitable for his purposes.
The contrast between the two major characters and the actors who portray them enlivens the film considerably, with the flip, cynical, fast-talking Downey pitted against the firm, vain, idealistic judge. Robert Duvall convincingly plays a recalcitrant man who refuses to admit weakness or error in himself or allow it in his sons. The scenes where Downey cares for him during a sudden health crisis ring absolutely true, as authentic a picture of physical debility one is ever likely to see on the screen.
The scriptwriters apparently never quite figured out how to end their movie, so they end it a couple of times in a couple of ways, not all of them entirely satisfactory. Although its several stories provide quite a few moments of humor, something Downey handles well, they also often sink into some not terribly pleasing sentimentality; at the same time, oddly, some other narrative threads never quite reach their proper conclusion. But the courtroom sequences work, Carlinville, Indiana, looks all too real, and the varied cast of performers works smoothly and easily together.