In Team Downey’s first major project, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) heads to his small home town in Indiana for his mother’s funeral. Like most people from tiny midwestern towns in America, he longs to escape, and family drama spurs him on. His father, the town’s judge, is accused of murder just as Hank is about to return to his life in Chicago, reeling him back in as he tries to uncover the truth and act as his father’s attorney.
Anyone who has ever wanted to make their parents proud, and especially those who feel that they’ve never received that approval, are going to empathise with Hank in this film. The familial relations are tense in the way that only a family can be, and it’s that realism that had people leaving the cinema talking about their relationships and often feeling closer than they have in years. It’s a difficult thing to face, both the loss of a parent and the ageing of people who have generally been pillars of strength in everyone’s life. The connection between Hank and his father, and the emotional revelations beautifully understated throughout the film, accompanied by the genius choice of sound design, really resonates with the audience.
Beyond the family drama, there’s an element of mystery only complicated by the small town politics true of any such settlement, American or not. The choice to set the film in rural Indiana, with the contrast of big city Chicago, is another good choice and shows the international audience a side of the USA that they may not have seen much of before.
Hank’s repeated attempts to escape the small town where he grows up, a place where everyone knows everyone else and is involved in each other’s business, is maybe a little over emphasised towards the beginning of the film, but that heavy-handedness in the writing improves as the film progresses. One scene in particular, as the judge storms out into the sound of a tornado siren, will give any midwesterner heart palpitations. It’s not all doom and gloom either, there are several moments where the whole audience was laughing in a much-needed break from the tension as well as a bit of romance between Hank and his high school sweetheart Samantha Powell.
Robert Downey Jr. portrays every emotional blow with a level of realism no doubt related to the loss of his own mother around the time of shooting The Judge. Billy Bob Thornton as Dwight Dickham may be introduced as a bitter rival, but there’s nothing over the top or ridiculous about his character. He’s a believable foil to Hank, and one that balances him well in the courtroom. The rest of the cast perform admirably, but it’s the interactions between Downey Jr. and Duvall that is the real strength to this film.
Technically speaking, there’s an interesting juxtaposition of Dale Palmer’s home video footage, in a sepia-toned 1970s style, and the main action of the film itself, which seems to have been shot with a softer style than the new Super HD HFR style that is beginning to emerge. The format choice makes the film feel more intimate, and the soundtrack compliments this wonderfully.
The question of whether or not Judge Palmer committed the murder he was accused of, the family drama between Hank, his father and brothers, the love story elements, and even the tragedy of losing a parent – the final picture is a slice of this particular family’s life, so real that it wouldn’t be surprising to turn the corner and come face to face with Hank Palmer on the way out of the movie theatre.
A. F. Dean