Friday, 17 October 2014

The Judge (2014)

Stuffed with downer endings and sucker punchlines, The Judge is the Game of Thrones of courtroom dramas and dysfunctional family dramas!

A brilliant defense attorney (who only represents the guilty because they’re the only ones who can afford him) returns to his Bible Belt hometown and ends up defending his Republican estranged dad (an unforgiving judge and arbiter of justice) of a murder it looks like he most certain did commit.

It is easy to see why The Judge was stuck in development for more than a few years; it begins with several cookie cutter genre tropes and then subverts them in grand style. Robert Downey Jr plays the city slicker who is forced into a return to his hometown—but do not expect him to find his heart grow a few sizes larger even as he reconnects, however ineptly with his roots. Robert Duvall plays the grumpy old patriarch of a somewhat dysfunctional family where the “evil lawyer” is the most successful son—but the family drama is played for bitter comedy rather than the broad laughs evoked by the prestige actor scenery chewing of August Osage County. It is also a potboiler courtroom drama with riveting confrontations, multiple reveals, and unexpected confessions—yet there is a studied refusal to evoke, affirm, or even appeal to high principles of justice or morality.

Hugely ambitious, the script takes on all these major, often lazily-written tropes and unravels them methodically. It’s like watching Game of Thrones as a reader of the source novels: you know the rug is being pulled from under your feet but you can’t help but be amazed at how the trick is performed.

On paper, it looks very difficult to work and it shouldn’t really work, but the film coasts through easily thanks to screen heavyweights Robert Downey Jr and Robert Duvall. Perfectly cast for their mutually antagonistic and unlikeable roles, the two principal actors deliver a screen presence and pungent screen chemistry that ensures The Judge is not quite a breezy dramedy or a tragicomedy (for want of catharsis or cheap laughs), but a bitter comedy the darkest shade of midnight.

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