I may be a little biased when I say this, since it contains three of my all time favorite actors and is in one of my favorite film genre’s, but David Dobkin’s The Judge may be the best dramatic film of the year. It is dripping with Oscar caliber performances, and the writing and directing are nearly flawless. Possible trigger warnings for graphically real depictions of cancer treatment and its side effects… the writers pulled no punches in showing the harrowing nature of life with a deadly disease. But aside from the intense family drama, there is a gripping legal battle being fought against the backdrop of a small town, where honor and loyalty are still the law of the land.
Robert Downey Jr.’s performance can only be described as emphatic; sometimes heartbreaking, always riveting. His cocky attitude and frenetic animation make him simultaneously affable and boorish. He has an uncanny ability to show deep emotion in nearly any role, and he certainly does not disappoint here. Not to take anything away from his stellar performance, but it certainly feels something like what I’d expect to see if Tony Stark went into law instead of billionaire genius playboy philanthropist-ing and Howard Stark was a judge in their shitty hometown.
And speaking of estranged father figures, Robert Duvall delivers a stunning performance on the other side of the love-to-hate-them coin, as Downey Jr’s domineering father, a judge who is in his 42nd year on the bench. The relationship between Robert Downey Jr’s character, Hank, and his tiny Indiana hometown plays almost as large of a role in the film as his relationship with his family, and the addition of Bates Motel’s Vera Formiga as Hank’s long time, long ago lover brings a delicious taste of nostalgia to the whole experience, despite her performance being, I feel, the weakest in the film. The audience is constantly forced to evaluate how they feel about Hank, his family, and his past, all while the same turmoil is played out onscreen. I was so wrapped up in the beautiful groundwork of the story, that I was completely caught off guard at the mid-film appearance of Billy Bob Thorton as Hank’s opposition during the aforementioned legal battle; attorney Dwight Dickham, another performance which does not disappoint. I was pleased to see him return to the screen with the same caliber character portrayal that he executed in Fargo.
The Judge is gripping, brilliantly performed, and beautifully executed, if not slightly predictable at times. For the gut wrenching realism of the cancer story, the near flawless performances, and the touching story about coming back home and the uncovering of things that sometimes can’t stay buried, I give The Judge 4 out of 5 sonic screwdrivers, with deductions made for a couple of less-than-rockstar performances and a bit of predictability. It delivered on everything I expected of it, and even more.