A good movie is hard to find. Bad writing, bad acting and even worse morals are the norm for much of what Hollywood is shoveling out these days. And more often than not, self-styled Important Films that Say Something wind up being thinly-disguised propaganda for the political left. Apparently, that rare breed of film that simply tells a story isn’t considered Important enough in and of itself.
The film is billed as a courtroom drama, whose two main characters are a father (Robert Duvall) and son (Downey, Jr.) attempting to find reconciliation after decades of silence and bitterness. The father is the county judge, and the son, Hank, is an arrogant hotshot lawyer. (His tagline: “Innocent people can’t afford me.”) When their wife and mother dies, Hank’s return re-opens old family wounds. And just when it seems things couldn’t get worse, his father is involved in an accident that looks suspiciously like murder. What’s more, the Judge is suffering from memory loss and can’t recall any of it. There’s only one decent choice for Hank: Stay and defend his old man in court. But that may be easier said than done.
I can give two reasons right off the bat why it’s the best, and they both start with a D: Downey and Duvall. In a word: Dynamite. These two actors are so intense on the screen together, I believed every word of every scene they played. I believed the pain, the anger, the regret, and beneath it all, the love between this stubborn mule of a father and this selfish jerk of a son. The critics say it’s sentimental hogwash. They must have watched the wrong movie. This movie is an honest, wrenching depiction of what re-building a relationship looks like.
It’s a beautiful moment, and yet several scenes later, they’re at it hammer and tongs all over again. Hank’s younger brother Dale sums it all up in a scene shortly after the Judge’s fateful accident. Hank is driving and asking his father a rapid-fire series of questions, and as the exchange peaks, he slams the brake and flies backwards into the driveway, stopping just short of the garage. As his brothers watch from a distance, Dale observes, “We shouldn’t let them drive together.”
Both of the brothers are well done. Dale is autistic and carries a vintage camera everywhere with him, obsessively filming family moments. Oldest brother Glen is the good son, the well-adjusted family man who put down his roots in the family’s small Indiana town. One of the deepest wounds between Hank and his father is that Glen lost a promising baseball career when he injured his hand in a highschool car accident. And Hank was behind the wheel, high on drugs. While Glen himself is content with his lot, the Judge has never forgiven Hank. In a wonderful scene between the brothers during the trial, Glen is close to a breakdown and lets out some of his own built-up hurt. Hank offers him an assuring pat on the back, and Glen shrugs it off, sensing condescension. “Don’t pat me. Don’t pat me. I’m the older brother here, you don’t pat me.”
Well said. Unfortunately, this movie is not unalloyed gold. In the middle of everything else, Hank is getting a divorce. It’s not quite clear who’s leaving whom, but consensus seems to be that Hank is dissolving it. The character of his wife is barely developed. We learn that she’s been depressed (understandably, given the kind of man Hank is) and had a one-time fling with someone else. They’re battling over custody of the little girl, who’s a very sharp tac. She surprises Hank by asking when the divorce will be finalized, and he fumbles lamely that this kind of thing “takes a long time… happens in stages.” “Your stuff is in boxes,” she observes. “That’s a stage.”
Admittedly, the whole thing does fit the movie’s man-centric, testosterone-laden oeuvre, but it undercuts its own message to men by implying that all that stuff about taking responsibility for your actions comes with a built-in exception for cheating on your wife. Three cheers for Real Manhood(TM)! Critics and movie-goers alike have commented that this subplot would serve the film much better on the cutting room floor. Self-edit it out for yourself, and I guarantee you’ll miss nothing significant. Of course, the movie thinks the girlfriend is significant to Hank’s transformation, which is the problem.
Needless to say, The Judge is not a Christian film (there’s a lot of very harsh language flying around to boot), nor is it even a particularly political film. But something about it seems to be rubbing critics the wrong way. Some of the criticism is justified. Besides the bad sub-plot and over-long running time (I counted at least four potential ending scenes), there are a few other heavy-handed moments in the script. For example, a pivotal family conflict takes place during a literal tornado, which seems like symbolic overkill. There are also a couple of plot holes that have been fairly pointed out. Still, most of the criticism boils down to the tone. Progressives want to write it off as sentimental, small-town, father-son bonding mush—presumably because it takes small towns, fathers and sons seriously. The core of The Judge is deeply American and deeply masculine. Both are considered faux pas in today’s entertainment milieu. The un-ironic positive reference to Reagan is part of that tone as well, and I’m sure it also garnered some eyerolls among the elite.
But like all good things, masculinity becomes an idol when it’s revered uncritically, and this film doesn’t seem too concerned about the less honorable side of that coin. Its tone towards Hank’s dalliances is an “Oops, that happened!” at best, and at worst it’s actively nudging him away from his marriage. The father-son relationship is rich and full of wisdom, until the really hard questions about God and fidelity arise—then it abruptly falters and trails off. Why? The movie’s moral code is not ultimately based on God’s word. It’s a noble pagan’s code, which means it gets some important things right and fails spectacularly on other important things. Ultimately, it can’t save a man’s marriage, nor can it save his soul.
“Let’s have a toast. To whatever, I don’t know, but let’s have a toast.”