Casting Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr. as The Judge and his son, the lawyer, was inspired. Cocky, sardonic, and abrasive, Downey Jr. is the perfect foil for his overbearing, morally-superior father who is known by the whole town of Carlinville, Indiana (a fictitious town) and either loved or hated by every one of them. Estranged from his father since his graduation from Yale law school, Hank Palmer returns home from the big city for his mother’s funeral. Over the next few days, sparks fly between the two of them and Hank can’t wait to leave. But before he has a chance to go, his father is accused of, then charged with, the murder of a man who had just been released from prison after a 20-year sentence given him by the Judge.
Over the next weeks, Hank learns many things about his father that surprise and confuse him. With an older brother (Vincent D’Onofrio) who might have been a baseball star if his hand hadn’t been damaged in a car accident in his late teens and a younger brother (Jeremy Strong) who is developmentally delayed and still living at home, Hank is the middle son who thinks his father doesn’t love him. (He tells his 8-year-old daughter, played by Emma Tremblay, that his father is dead to him.) As they prepare to defend the Judge on charges that escalate from hit and run to first degree murder, home movies are shown that clearly indicate that this was once a loving family that included Hank. What went wrong?
There is a lot of superb acting in this movie. Billy Bob Thornton plays the out-of-town prosecutor brought in for the trial and is a calm, self-assured contrast to the over-confident Hank Palmer. Vera Farmiga who plays the childhood sweetheart Hank left behind along with everyone and everything in the town and Dax Shepard who becomes Hank’s co-counsel in his father’s defence are both excellent as are D’Onofrio and Strong. Ken Howard, who plays the trial judge deciding the case against Judge Palmer, comes across as stern but fair, and shows great respect and compassion for the Judge as more and more testimony reveals the true situation of the incident.
This is not a taut, tense, fast-paced movie like The Firm (also based on a John Grisham novel) or Runaway Jury, but is a well-thought-out, meandering journey strewn with puzzle pieces that slowly, meticulously fall into place as Hank struggles to find his true place in the family, the town, and his life. * * * *