The Judge - DVD Review

'A surprisingly hard-hitting and emotional picture of declining health in old age, largely achieved through Duvall's masterful performance'.

With a series of knockabout comedies filling David Dobkin's directorial back catalogue, you would be forgiven for assuming that his latest film, The Judge, might offer similarly unchallenging and unremarkable cinema. The exposition-heavy opening fifteen minutes, in which Dobkin hurriedly packs bigshot Chicago lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) off to his sleepy Indiana hometown and back to his estranged family for his mother's funeral, at first seem to confirm this expectation.

It's around the half an hour mark, after firmly but somewhat gently establishing Hank's severely fractured relationship with his father, the eponymous Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), that the film notably steps up a gear when Joseph is implicated in a hit-and-run incident. From this point, Dobkin - as both director and co-writer alongside Nick Schenk - carefully and steadily builds up an increasingly detailed picture of both past and present, with Hank and Joseph's bitter and complex relationship at the centre.

Whilst the story at points feels somewhat formulaic, the strong cast assembled within The Judge makes this largely forgivable. Duvall and Downey Jr. are unsurprisingly superb, and together share a fiery chemistry that fuels many of The Judge's most memorable moments. The support is also excellent, even in the more peripheral roles: Vera Farmiga transforms Hank's old flame Sam into a consistently compelling presence during her handful of scenes; and Billy Bob Thornton as hard-nosed prosecutor Dwight Dickham also puts in a satisfyingly polished performance in what could have been reduced to a forgettable bit part.

Dobkin uses his 135 minute running time admirably, making his film a slow burner that allows him to explore several different plot threads. The director could have easily made this a straightforward courtroom drama, affording the trial scenes ample time to build tension and steadily piecing together each part of the puzzle. But Dobkin goes further, building up a surprisingly hard-hitting and emotional picture of declining health in old age, largely achieved through Duvall's masterful performance. The relationships Hank rekindles both with Sam and with his older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) also offer satisfying narrative diversions. The director even finds a pleasing amount of room for wry humour, utilising Downey Jr.'s affinity for quick wit at the right moments; a scene depicting the pre-trial jury selection is an absolute comic delight.

There are times within The Judge where Dobkin takes some definite missteps. Dax Shepard's inept attorney feels as though he comes from a somewhat different film, and the director's decision to include him in the narrative much further than necessary feels decidedly odd. There are moments here of excessive mawkishness, in particular two very clich├ęd scenes during which characters watch home movies in the basement of Joseph's house, which Dobkin's film would be all the better for losing completely. These flaws are far outweighed by the positive elements within The Judge, however, which emerges - perhaps somewhat unexpectedly - an intricate, charming and absorbing film.

The Judge is available on Digital HD from Monday 16th February, and on UK Blu-ray and DVD from Monday 2nd March 2015.

By Ben Broadribb. Ben is a regular contributor to Film Intel, having previously written at Some Like It Hot Fuzz. He is normally seen in the wild wearing t-shirts containing obscure film references. He is a geek, often unashamedly so. He's also on and Twitter.

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