The reason why Fikri Jermadi watched this film is not because his middle name is Hakim.
When ‘Iron Man’ first came out, with Robert Downey Jr in the title role, it became clear soon enough that what we have on our hands is a man who the men wants to be, and who the women wants to be with. That probably was the case even from before, but the film certainly sparked quite a frenzy, especially amongst those of the fairer sex. Not that I could begrudge him in any way; Robert Downey Jr has worked hard for a number of years, but the Tony Stark character was the one that fitted him like a glove (or…vice versa. You decide). It’s somewhat ironic that it took a B-list comic book character to really propel him to A-list stardom.
Imagine, therefore, what it would be like should there be a live adaptation of Tony Stark facing up to marital problems and daddy issues. We have a bit of that in the Iron Man films, but ‘The Judge’ is a more serious approach that can justify that. Robert Downey Jr. plays Hank, a successful big city defense attorney. He’s somewhat estranged from his family, but returns back to his small hometown once he learns of his mother’s death. Evidently, though, there are still issues that remains between all the existing family members, crystalised through their interactions (or lack thereof) with each other. His older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and younger sibling Dale (Jeremy Strong) have their own stuff going on; Dale even more so, being a mentally handicapped person with a penchant for making movies.
The alpha male of the house, though, is Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), an elderly but well-respected judge who revels in the idea of his legacy doing good in that same small town. In fact, as I recall, the first scene we see of him was in court as Hank drops by almost immediately after arriving home. It was a beautifully shot scene, serving to contrast the big city son and the more provincial father. Hank mouthing his father’s words in the delivery of the verdict (he was sentencing a person at that time) showcases how familiar he is with the other, and in that scene I could sense the beginning of a titanic battle, not only of each other but also of what they represent.
For it was a clash of such hard-headed egos that it’s difficult to truly determine which is which. The conflict truly began once it emerges that after the funeral, Judge Palmer had run down a man he had once sentenced to jail. Hank, despite his issues, leaps to his father’s defence, and this is where the story truly begins.
As I mentioned before, we see a strong dichotomy presented between the urban and the rural. It is not an uncommon interpretation, mind you, but while it is not necessarily the main focus, the filmmakers has worked hard to ensure that the deification of small town values are clear for all to see; in this instance, family, even one as estranged and difficult as this, should always come first. At the start of the film, we see how Hank himself is going through a difficult period in his life, as he fails to reconcile with his wife. His daughter, though, is another story. Hank is a loving and doting father, and again we see a fantasy of many women coming through, as Robert Downey Jr lives up to the ideal of the hot and cool daddy.
As such, the melodrama that surrounds the family has enough fuel to light a number of films, with some interesting subplots. Hank, for example, bumps into his high school sweetheart Sam (Vera Farmiga), and sparks are started once again between the two. Do you see where I can go with the rest of the film? Small town Americana with big capital letters on the big screen. It’s a delicious romp into the past, even if nostalgia is not all that pleasant for Hank himself.
I have to admit that ‘The Judge’ stinks of clichés every other corner once in a while. It’s fun to see Robert Downey Jr. in Tony Stark mode taking down other people portrayed as less competent than him (represented ever so clearly by Dax Shepard’s hopelessly out of his depth lawyer character), and his tangles with the equally suave prosecutor Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton) is also a pretty cool sight for sore eyes; it’s been a while since I have seen Billy Bob portray that snarky character he plays so well.
Let that not take away the attention from the heart of this film, though. I mentioned the word ‘titanic’ earlier, and while that may strike some as a hyperbole, thinking about it once again I do mean it. The beating heart of ‘The Judge’ is the relationship between Judge Palmer and his son/attorney, and that could not have happened without a stupendous performance from both men. Theirs is a clash of masculinity, of the personal issues played out in a public arena. It’s flawed, but in the best way. Both men are without the female figures many had anchored such characters in other films, and while I should not really help solidify that stereotype of what lies behind every strong man, what it allowed for are two big boats in the middle of the storm at sea to meet head on.
That metaphor is deliberate. Witness, for example, a scene when the entire family sheltered in the basement in the face of a tropical storm. Predictably, things went over the top, and out Judge Palmer went, into the storm and facing the gale head on. Hank followed after him, and the elements became a visual representation of the sheer anger, bitterness and disappointment they both felt at each other. Once again, it may have been a tad over the top, but I’ll be damned if it wasn’t effective.
Quite frankly, I had figured Robert Duvall to have settled into a life of quite retirement, picking up the cheques from a number of easier assignments here and there. However, the charisma projected in some of his duels with Robert Downey Jr. was difficult to watch in the way its meant to be. Effective, then is the word of the day. I can praise the filmmakers for a job well done.
A special handshake, though, must be extended to Roberts Duvall and Downey Jr. Was it something new? No. Did it strike me where it meant to strike, evoking certain feelings I myself may or may not have felt in my own relationship with my father? Absolutely. Ultimately, that’s the aim of any storyteller, and for that, I wish to say, “Thank you.”
Fikri once flirted with the idea of a law career. He will discuss this film with Wina in the 45th episode of the podcast. ‘The Judge’ is nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category at the 87th Academy Awards. It was nominated in the Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture category at the 72nd Golden Globes Awards.
Featured image credit: PoliticsPA