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Cinema in Focus: ‘The Judge’

3 Stars — Challenging

The troubled father-son relationship has been a staple in literature and film. It portrays the universal struggle that all sons experience to some extent to gain their father’s approval while at the same time finding their own distinct masculine identity. When we add to this the abrasive personality and moral authority of a small-town judge whose decisions are both cursed and praised, we have the formulae for David Dobkin’s The Judge.

Having created the story along with Nick Schenk, Dobkins calls upon the additional skills of Bill Dubuque to create the screenplay.

Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) has served on the bench in a small Indiana town for 42 years. A harsh and opinionated man, Joseph has three sons who all call him “Judge.” It is this absorption of his profession into his identity that creates a troubled relationship with all three of his sons.

The second son, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), is the rebel who has received the brunt of the Judge’s judgmental ways. The firstborn son, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), is the family hero whose athletic promise was destroyed in a way that becomes a part of the struggle, though in a far deeper way than expected. The youngest son, Dale (Jeremy Strong), is a uniquely innocent and mentally disabled man who has used his camera as a shield as well as an instrument for bonding his brothers.

Having returned to his hometown due to his mother’s death, Hank soon is embroiled in a court case that is as unexpected as it is disastrous. We won’t spoil the plot except to note that it is in his father’s courtroom that Hank begins to find his place in both his family and his own world as he defends his father who is accused of murder.

Necessary to understand the Palmer men are the women who travel with them. Hank’s daughter Lauren (Emma Tremblay) is a typically precocious only child who identifies the reality of her parents’ lives in ways that leave Hank uncomfortable. Besides his mother and wife are two alluring beauties Hank encounters when he returns to his hometown named Samantha (Vera Farmiga) and Carla (Leighton Meester), who impact the brothers in unexpected ways.

Being the sons of a professional or public person is difficult, especially in smaller towns. This tale is a worthy exploration of this reality, but in its final analysis, this is a story of a father and his sons and how difficult it can be to find a path to connect to one another in those relationships.

Discussion

» Since the film does not answer the question of what Hank did in the next chapter of his life, what do you think he did? Did he return to his hometown and childhood sweetheart or go back to his city life? Why do you answer as you do?

» How difficult do you think it would be to be the child of a judge who holds your town accountable? As noted by the Judge, some lawyers and judges become social outcasts. How would you have handled that during your own teen years?

» The classic dysfunctional family often is a constellation in which the firstborn becomes the “hero,” the second born becomes the “rebel” and the youngest becomes the family “mascot.” Do you believe this family constellation was in the mind of the writers? Why do you answer as you do? Were any of those roles taken by yourself and/or your siblings? Which one was yours during your developing years?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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