Unscrupulous yet ingenious Chicago defense attorney, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) whose specialty is emancipating corporate criminals, returns home to Carlinville, Indiana, an abiding small town he vowed never to return to, to attend his mother’s funeral. Hank’s father, the honorable Judge Palmer, starring Robert Duvall, is a stern but fair judge, a curmudgeonly but endearing old man. He is more draconian when concerning his middle son Hank, with whom time has not healed all wounds. The tension is high between judge and lawyer, the ethical and the corrupt, small town and city, father and son. When Hank sees his father for the first time in one or two decades, they shake hands. Hank acknowledges his father as “Judge,” and that’s about all he says to him. Hank’s brothers, Glen the family man (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Dale the lovable, mentally challenged brother who follows the family around with an old videocamera (Jeremy Strong), don’t go out of their way to include him either.
The Judge is a classic adult drama. Boy leaves home, makes it big in the city and doesn’t come back. He marries an attractive woman, they have a child, and a few years later are signing divorce papers. Boy goes home for funeral, finds his Metallica t-shirt in a box of old things, runs into high school sweetheart and mends his fractured family relations. But Hank doesn’t fix his relationship with his father, in easy cinematic fashion.
Just when Hank is on a plane back to Chicago, he gets a call from his eldest brother, Glen, that their father has been accused of killing a local lowlife, who was just released from 20 years in the state pen, for drowning his girlfriend– a sentence determined by Judge Palmer. Hank stays in Carlinville to defend his father, who he learns is in need of more help than just legal counsel. The latter half of the film is steeped in heavy drama stemming from Hank and Glen’s high school days, and the animosity that is felt by both Hank and the Judge, that the other was ultimately disinterested or too stubborn to have them in their life. Hank and the Judge nearly get into physical fights when discussing the case. Hank says he is the most difficult client he has ever had to defend, and the Judge only grants his son the position of co-counsel, when the first lawyer he hired, who proves to be a better antique salesman than relentless attorney, proved inadequate. The defense attorney is played by Billy Bob Thorton, who adds to the thespian talent that transcends the at times convoluted narrative.
Duvall and Downey bounce off their cunning wit, intelligence and stubbornness from one another, but they also share some emotionally charged scenes that speak to Duvall’s aging body and mind and Downey’s guarded soft interior. The interspersed 35 mm cinematography and the scenes where Glen the youngest brother, projects the home videos he’s edited, give the film a melancholic undercurrent. These shots make the audience forget family agony they related to while watching Hank and the Judge hash it out and leaves them with memories from their innocence– fishing on the lake, wrestling in the backyard and opening Christmas presents as a young, happy family. The ending is left open for interpretation and we don’t know whether Downey will return indefinitely to Chicago or remain in the sleepy town he seems to have reconciled more in his memory. One thing is obvious, that he is more like his father than he thought and he has inherited his caring, relentless talents as a man of law and a father.