Robert Duvall has been around forever. As a film-lover its almost impossible not to know him, since his very identifiable face and voice have popped up consistently in award-winning films since the 1970’s. I was curious about the 80-something actor’s nomination for Best Actor in The Judge. Curious, since some of my more picky friends ripped this film to shreds from acting to directing to writing and cinematography. Opinions were noted but I streamed it anyway. Glad about that.
The plot is an old standby bordering on cliche, polished up for a new generation. The prodigal son, now a high-powered Chicago attorney, returns home to small-town Indiana to pay respects to dearly departed mom. On arrival he meets with a dysfunctional family pie in the face, including his critical father who is also the town’s judge, his two brothers who each have some issues and the sexy-ex. The main story arc involves dad, the judge, being arrested for murder, and son, the attorney, defending him. Really this setup is just opaque latticework for father and son to hash out their differences.
There were some twists in the plot, however there were so many obvious road signs that Google Maps could have directed you there. The writing, well, it could have been better. A few subplots were mentioned but not explored and some situations, like a tender father-son moment during trial proceedings, I did not find cohesive.
The acting however, is phenomenal. Robert Downey Jr, went off the blockbuster path to show, once again, he actually is a serious actor. His fast-talking, conflict-disarming monologues were well-timed. His character’s confident attitude and inflated ego manifested themselves in hilarious ways. However, the constant pained expression otherwise gave you the sense there were some unresolved internal conflicts.
Duvall shines as the cantankerous widower, half rooted in an overly articulated and analytical work life, the other half completely unraveling due to a long-standing conflict with his attorney-son, his wife’s death and his arrest. Duvall is so convincing at being caustic in one moment then vulnerable in the next, you will waver between routing for him and wanting him shut down.
This film is a love-seat session for Duvall and Downey Jr., who eclipse other’s great performances, particularly sexy-ex, Vera Farmiga. Both do a tremendous job with their roles and its the primary reason to view. Will Duvall win for Best Actor? Maybe and he certainly deserves credit here, but it will be stiff competition with some other screen-smoking performances in the same category.