In the end,
it's about fathers and sons. Which means that it's complicated.
The Judge is
Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), who's been a sitting judge in a small
for 42 years He knows virtually everyone in town, and they know him. He's
accustomed to people standing when he enters the room, and not just when his
court is in session. His reputation as a tough but fair-minded jurist means
everything to him. Even if he's neither as tough nor as fair-minded as he
likes to think of himself.
wife of 50 years has just died, and the whole town turns out for her funeral,
and also at the house afterwards (though nobody thought it odd or unusual that
he was still holding court that morning). Judge Palmer has three sons: the
first, Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio), was the athlete: maybe could have made it to
the big leagues as a pitcher, but unfortunately he got in a car wreck in high
school which messed up his pitching hand. And the car wreck was blamed on his
middle son, Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.), who'd already shown signs of being one
of those smart-alecks: a restless, arrogant, too-smug-for-his-own-good glib
jokester, whose way of getting attention was to get in trouble, then criticize
and put down those who tried to help him. "A piece of work," as they
say. He's the kind of guy who left the suffocating small town and never looked
back, no, not even to visit. A fact which The Judge always held against him.
Glen was just as glad not to have to deal with Hank, either. The only one
happy to see him return for the funeral was the youngest brother, Dale (Jeremy
Strong), who's one of those that's not all there, but wouldn't hurt a flea.
Dale brings out the best in Hank, perhaps because the element of
competitiveness is completely removed. Hank himself has become a
hyper-combative big-city trial lawyer, who's brilliant, yes, but also
condescending and flippant and almost completely self-centered. The only
person who opens up his warmth, besides Dale, is his little girl, Lauren
(Emily Tremblay), but since Hank is busy estranging himself from his wife and
her mother, that positive relationship is in jeopardy, as well. And Hank
doesn't want to bring her to his Dad's funeral, despite her little-girl
pleadings. Hank figures this is something he's going to have to take care of
by himself, and as quickly as possible.
Of course it's
neither quick nor easy. Hank runs into his high school girlfriend, Samantha
(Vera Farmiga), and discovers that there's still some current there, but he's
not sure yet if it's yet another short-circuit. Hank and his Dad clash
publicly and loudly, and argue with uncomfortably hurtful vehemence in
private. There's obviously love lost between them. With fathers and sons,
there's always this silent dynamic of "I want to show you what it's like
to be a man"/"I need to find out on my own how to be a man."
With fathers and sons, there's always this push-pull of "I love you/I
want you to be independent"/"I love you/I need you to give me my own
space." With fathers and sons, there's always this tension of "I
made some mistakes and I don't want you to make the same ones"/"I
probably won't make your mistakes, but I'll make my own, thanks." With
fathers and sons, women intersect significantly, but the basic relationship is
still like am open trunk line, an uninterrupted connection where similarities
sometimes mean that they're too much alike to recognize their solidarity. And
differences that might threaten to undo them actually become, themselves, a
kind of common ground where there might be some meeting in the middle.
thankfully, are the characters in this film: suitably complex to maintain our
interest. Sure, they're inconsistent. Of course, they keep secrets from each
other, and from us. Naturally, they're flawed. And so is this movie: a little
schmaltzy (dreamy misty scenes of the tranquil fishing pond), and a little
melodramatic at times, and, unfortunately, a little too long. But overall,
it's worth the viewing, because the performances are solid, and the dynamics
are worth contemplating.
Dr. Ronald P.
Salfen is the Parish Associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in