The Judge makes me want to be a better dad.
Like a sequence out of the Old Testament (the feud between Jacob and Esau, the favoritism toward Joseph and its consequences), the screenplay by Nick Schenk (Gran Turino) digs into the family dynamics of the Palmer family in Carlinsville, Indiana, upon the death of the matriarch. Successful trial attorney Hank Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.) returns home to pay his respects, but ends up embroiled in a small-town murder trial when his father, the Honorable Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), is tried for the hit-and-run of a convicted murderer. While the story follows a John Grisham-like process through the investigation and trial (thanks to a solid delivery by Billy Bob Thornton as the state’s prosecutor), it ultimately comes down to family and what it means to reconcile.
I’m rarely offended by vocabulary in a film, but The Judge seemed intent to beat us with the bombastic way that the Palmers interact with each other, as well as with the judge’s other sons (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong). These men have made a living and a life out of their use of words, but when it comes to each other, they are mean spirited, stubborn, and vicious. It’s clear in their ability to ignore each other and to scream at each other, and it stems from several situations in their past that are gradually drawn out through the course of the movie. But love? Love appears to have nothing to do with this!
Love does have something to do with the side story about Hank and his high school sweetheart, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and the way that each of them has seen love and lost it through the time since they parted. Samantha tells Hank that there are stories (lies, really) we tell ourselves to feel better, and he asks her what lies she would tell him– it’s a moment when we can recognize that, for all the words spoken by a Palmer, there is so much left unsaid and unanswered in the course of their lives. There’s a divisiveness to their family because of what they don’t talk about even as they seem to talk, yell, and argue so much.
The film itself blends humor (it’s a terribly funny movie at times) and some of our most serious experiences (the death of a parent, care for the aging, divorce, parenthood, etc.) into a story that touches on it all. Unfortunately, it’s a little choppy; it may actually try to do too much in the course of its two-hour-plus run time. But it’s ultimately a deeply effective movie in getting us to think about our own relationships with parents, spouses, and children. (Moments after the film was over, the group I went with stood speechless in a circle, unsure where to begin!) The truth is that everything would have been different if one of the two Palmers at the center of our story would’ve been willing to budge, but both of them believe that the other has committed great offense to them, that anger is the appropriate response to what holds them apart. The reality is that we are often too proud to be the first one to admit we made a mistake.
Walking away from the theater, I wanted to hug my kids tighter, and be less critical; I wanted to tell my wife I love her, and that we’re in it for the long haul. To me, that’s a successful film, if it can make you think, and process, and forgive. That’s story, scriptural or cinematic, and it’s the lifeblood of the lessons we learn and the hope we have for change.