Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Judge (Warner Bros., Big Kid Pictures, Team Downey, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched one of the most remarkable recent movies I’ve seen in some time: The Judge, a 2014 film that was pulled off the so-called “Blacklist” — an annual report of the best-liked unproduced screenplays kicking around Hollywood — in 2012 and became the first production of “Team Downey,” a company formed by actor Robert Downey, Jr. and his wife Susan. The credits list David Dobkin and Nick Schenk as authors of the story, and Schenk and Bill Dubuque as writers of the screenplay; Dobkin also directed. The Judge is one of those curious films that is compounded from familiar plot elements but manages to put enough unique “spins” on them that the result doesn’t feel clichéd, but fresh and legitimately entertaining. Downey has a tour de force role as aggressive defense attorney Hank Palmer, who’s wrenched out of his comfortable if cutthroat existence as a well-heeled defender in Chicago by a sudden call from his older brother Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio, who looks so much older than Downey at first I thought he was playing his uncle, not his brother) that their mother has died and he’s expected back home in Carlinville, Indiana for the funeral. (According to an “Trivia” poster, there is a town called Carlinville but it’s really in Illinois.) That means Hank is going to have to see his father, cantankerous old Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), whom he’s avoided for 20 years for reasons Dobkin, Schenk and Dubuque take their own sweet time revealing but ultimately let us know. Hank and Glen have a third brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), the youngest of the three and a learning-disabled (is that still the au courant euphemism?) man whose avocation is filming the rest of the clan with an old-fashioned wind-up home movie camera. (At first I thought the camera was merely a blind, but later we get to see some of Dale’s films — which made me wonder how, in the 21st century, Dale obtains film for the camera and how he gets it developed.) Hank suffers through his mom’s funeral and a reunion with his dad neither one of them wanted, and he’s on the plane on his way back to Chicago when he gets word that his dad has been arrested for murder; the night of his wife’s funeral Judge Palmer allegedly ran down a man riding a bicycle after the two of them left a 7-Eleven store. The man is Mark Blackwell (viewed in one flashback scene and chillingly played by Mark Kiely), who 20 years earlier had a fight with his girlfriend and shot up her home. His case came before Judge Palmer, who took pity on him and gave him a 30-day sentence — only six months later Mark returned to his ex-girlfriend’s home, kidnapped her and drowned her. Now he’s just been released from prison for his crime and has come back to Carlinville just as Judge Palmer’s wife died, only to get himself run over by the prized 1961 Cadillac Judge Palmer owns and doesn’t let anyone else drive. Judge Palmer insists on hiring an incompetent but friendly local attorney named C. P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) to handle his case, but when Kennedy bungles the preliminary hearing Hank insists on taking over his dad’s representation and relegates Kennedy (who throws up on the courthouse lawn before every session) to second chair.

At first Hank is utterly convinced of his father’s innocence, but the out-of-town prosecutor, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton in a remarkably restrained performance, at least by his standards), discovers a surveillance tape from the 7-Eleven that proves that Judge Palmer turned around and followed Mark in his car. (The surveillance in that place is well above what one would expect from a real 7-Eleven and made me wonder who wired it for them — the NSA?) While all that is going on Hank also reunites, sort of, with his ex-girlfriend Samantha Powell (Vera Farmiga), who’s ready and anxious to have another round with him in bed (or wherever). She’s the proprietor of the local watering hole, the Firefly, and she’s got a daughter, Carla (Leighton Meester) who may or may not be Hank’s daughter — which doesn’t stop Hank from making a brief pass at her, since she’s an attractive college-age young woman with an ambition to go to law school. Hank has a wife back home in Chicago, Lisa (Sarah Lancaster), but they’re in the process of splitting up after she got tired of him never being around and had an affair. They also have a daughter, Lauren (Emma Tremblay), who Hank keeps home on his first trip to Carlinville but who accompanies him when he returns to defend Judge Palmer in court, though Hank first briefs her on what to expect from this grandfather she’s never met before: “Grandpa Schneider is kind of, you know, nice and affable. He’d maybe take you for ice cream, maybe read to you. Grandpa Palmer doesn’t wanna do any of that. If you ask him to read, he might throw the book at you.” Throughout the film, the writers reveal the true relations of the characters in often unexpected but always logical ways; Glen, Hank’s older brother, was a star baseball player in high school with a pro career seemingly ahead of him until he was involved in a car accident; Hank was driving and escaped unscathed but Glen’s arm was crushed — and Dale somehow was there with his camera filming the whole thing. Also it turns out that whether Judge Palmer gets convicted of the murder or not is virtually academic because he has stage 4 colon cancer (there’s a scene in which he craps on his bathroom floor and Hank has to go into caregiver mode and clean it up — Robert Duvall didn’t want to film that scene but director Dobkin talked him into it) and he’s been secretly meeting his doctor at a beach house, ostensibly so the two men could play chess (a game Judge Palmer never liked) but actually so the doctor can give the judge chemotherapy without anyone in the town finding out about it.

I’ve often written in these pages that the modern movies I like tend to be the ones that have the same qualities as the older movies I like, and The Judge is a good example; though there are plenty of scenes that indicate this is a modern film — the characters, the two male leads in particular, drop so many “F”-bombs I wondered if David Mamet had worked on it as a script doctor, and after a few expository shots the first big scene takes place in a huge men’s room in a Chicago courthouse where Hank deliberately pees on the shoes of an opposing prosecutor and then claims it was an accident — it has some of the same values as older ones, including a well-constructed screenplay and characters we generally like and want to see prevail despite their flaws. Janusz Kaminski is the cinematographer, and while that’s usually a bad sign — in previous films he’s worshiped all too faithfully at the past-is-brown shrine of the late St. Gordon Willis — here his work is naturalistic, taking full advantage of the exteriors (even though both Massachusetts and British Columbia took turns “playing” Indiana) and offering a wide-ranging spectrum instead of turning the whole film into dirty greens and browns. It did occur to me about two-thirds of the way through that The Judge has similarities to Tennessee Williams’ play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, written in 1955 and filmed three years later by director Richard Brooks with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor — Cat is also about a prodigal son who returns home to his family and a patriarchal father who has terminal cancer but is keeping that a deep, dark secret, and it’s also a story about a school athlete who never realized his potential (though in Williams’ play it’s the prodigal, not the brother who stayed home, who’s the burned-out ex-athlete reliving past glories) — but I liked The Judge considerably better than the film of Cat, mainly because I don’t like Tennessee Williams’ writing (he kept trying for poetry and realized only pretentious prose, and the vast gulf between how Williams’ characters talk and how real people talk always irritates me); the characters in The Judge speak dialogue that sounds believable coming from the mouths of the people the writers tell us they are. And they speak it quite well; this is probably Downey’s finest film since The Singing Detective — certainly it stretches him more than playing Tony Stark or the revamped Sherlock Holmes did (I haven’t seen either of Downey’s two Holmes films because the reviews put me off; they basically revamped Holmes as exclusively an action hero and one of the filmmakers, obviously proud of himself, gave an interview in which he said they had to do that because the original Holmes character was “out of date” and needed a makeover for modern audiences) — and Duvall matches him as the old pro that he is: in their scenes together we forget they’re acting and “read” them as father and son locked in an old antagonism and forced into a mutually unwelcome association.

The film is also full of wry in-jokes; at one point Hank explains his cynical attitude towards his profession by saying, “Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a bathtub” (To Kill a Mockingbird was Robert Duvall’s first film), and in court Hank asks prospective jurors if they have bumper stickers on their cars, and if so, what they say. One juror says his is “Willie Nelson for President,” and after a bit of badinage about whether Willie Nelson would accept a presidential nomination Hank accepts him as a juror on the case. That primes us to hear Willie Nelson’s voice during the closing credits — which we do, though the song he sings is an unexpected one (the beautiful ballad “The Scientist” by Coldplay) and Nelson’s voice, even though by now it’s only a thin thread of its former self, is welcome even though the makers of Brokeback Mountain ended their film, too, with Willie Nelson singing an unlikely cover (“He Was a Friend of Mine” by Bob Dylan). I’m not sure I’d go as far as reviewer Kristen Czewski, who said The Judge “will prove to be a classic,” but it is a first-rate film, the sort of human drama one doesn’t expect to see coming from a major studio (Warner Bros.) these days, and though I was originally a bit worried it might be padded at its 142-minute running time (all too many hyperthyroid films released these days could have been really better if the filmmakers had made them 20 to 30 minutes shorter), as things turned out director Dobkin and his writing partners created a film that used the extra length to add depth and richness to the story they had to tell. The Judge is one of the best recent films I’ve seen and a quite impressive work that deserved a better fate at the box office (it fell just short of making back its production cost, which in the movie business is generally considered a flop because the general rule is a film has to make back twice what it cost to make to turn a profit — the extra is in advertising and marketing costs, which given how many spots I saw for The Judge on TV were probably pretty substantial) and hopefully on DVD will find the audience it richly deserves.