Don’t be fooled by its title. The Judge isn’t here to make grand statements about justice or the state of the legal system; in fact, it doesn’t even touch on the law much at all. Trials and courtrooms are but the backdrop – taking the centre stage is a family drama that surprisingly strikes chords close to the heart.
Surprising because, despite the fact that there are few storylines still left unexplored in this genre that have accumulated in vast libraries of films every year, The Judge still manages to swerve clear of the cliche path.
It’s a series of plot devices that we’ve seen onscreen many times before: the successful lawyer, the failed marriage, the sudden incident that forces the protagonist to return to the small town home he’s run away from, the estranged father and son. Also, featuring: the typical reunion with the high school girlfriend and oops is her daughter my child or not?
But the success of family drama films shouldn’t be measured by its originality, and there is some truth in Tolstoy’s claim that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.
The Judge presents us with a series of frames that slowly uncovers more and more skeletons in the Palmer family’s closet with the help of Dale’s video clips, and keeps things interesting with the chemistry between Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall, which brings a freshness to each new episode of conflict.
At the centre of The Judge is the word honour, and the audience do really empathise with the judge’s attempt to always do the right thing and be the most honorable man he can, even if he sacrifices other things in the process – sometimes that being his relationships with his sons.
Note though that when I say an honorable ‘man’, the film really is just about that – men and masculinity. My only qualm with The Judge would be that it feels a little androcentric at times and doesn’t pass the Bechdel test.
Funerals feature in both the beginning and the ending of the film, but the tragedy and melodrama doesn’t feel overdone or hard to swallow; instead, it’s one that will make you nod and sigh and go c’est la vie. When I left the cinema, I made a mental reminder to call my mom tomorrow.
[Karen Cheung – @karenklcheung]