Best Supporting Actor - Robert Duvall
I wasn’t initially planning on reviewing The Judge, as it seemed to me to be just another average crime drama, albeit one with an impressive cast. And then the Oscar nominations were announced, with acting veteran Robert Duvall featured prominently in the Best Supporting Actor category. And so, if I’m going to be a credible judge as to who should and will win the golden statue in that category, I should really consider this film a priority. And while the film is by no means extraordinary, the performances are what make it a worthwhile viewing, not the least of which is Duvall’s.
This film is one for anyone nostalgic for that time in the 90’s when John Grisham was churning out bestsellers and their adaptations were topping the box office. This film is also for anyone who loves homecoming stories from about that same time period. The story here is that Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) is a big shot defense attorney whose mother passes away, forcing him to return to his hometown for the funeral. While there, he reunites with his brothers and his estranged father, Joseph, a local judge (Duvall). The experience is an uncomfortable one, but they get through it with a minimum of drama. However, just as Hank is about to leave, his father is charged with the murder of someone he had previously sent to prison, and Hank sticks around to act as his father’s attorney, despite Joseph’s protests and resistance.
All the appropriate beats of both the legal thriller and the homecoming genre are hit with almost mechanical efficiency. Of course there are going to be damning facts revealed that make Joseph appear guilty. Of course an old love interest is going to catch Hank’s eye and seduce him back to the small town life. Of course the film will be populated by stock hicks that alternate between quaint and boorish. The film goes through all these motions to the point of near artificiality; we’ve all seen these tropes before, and the film doesn’t do much to stir the pot.
However, the film shines with its cast. Downey Jr. is his usual smug self, and yet manages to find some real emotion to push some tender moments with Duvall. Playing Downey Jr.’s brothers are Vincent D’Onofrio, a performer I always enjoy seeing at work, and Jeremy Strong, who is the cast’s only weak link as a mentally disabled man played up for often offensive comic effect. But, of course, the real star is Robert Duvall, and while I don’t necessarily agree with the Academy’s choice in nominating him, I do understand it. Duvall has been around a while, and he knows how to sell a dramatic scene. Whether it’s navigating the troublesome waters of emotional interactions with Downey Jr., displaying inner emotional turmoil through sheer physical movement, or simply collapsing under the pressure of his character’s physical decrepitude, Duvall really sells a character that seems to have been written with his talents in mind.
So, as is probably obvious, I don’t think Duvall will or should win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, but the problem is not so much with his ability to perform as it is with the material he had to work with. The Judge is by no means a revolutionary film, and with a weaker cast it would have likely been a waste of time for everyone involved, including the audience. However, this cast pulls the film from the dredges of ineptitude and elevates it into the land of recommendable mediocrity. If legal thrillers are your thing, this isn’t a bad one in light of the dry market for them.
Have a favorite Robert Duvall film? Share it in the comments below.