INDIANAPOLIS, October 4, 2014: The latest from Warner Brothers is an intellectually and emotionally gripping story of a complicated family reunion, forced upon Hank Palmer, a successful, unscrupulous Chicago defense attorney (Robert Downey, Jr.)
He is suddenly called to southern Indiana because of his mother’s death, and he deals with his estranged father, The Honorable Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall), his two brothers, and some unfinished business with Samantha (Vera Farmiga), his high-school sweetheart, even as his own marriage is disintegrating.
Judge Joseph Palmer, now past retirement age, becomes a reluctant client of his middle son, who doesn’t like the old man much. But the Judge is accused of murder, a killing which certainly looks like his.
Hank, who has dutifully shown up at his mother’s funeral and already boarded a plane back to Chicago when news of his father’s arrest reaches him, returns to his boyhood home for an extended stay, as he tries to cajole his dad into cooperating in his own defense.
Additional plot twists and some light moments are provided by his prom date’s lovely and strong character and her early-twenties daughter (singer Leighton Meester), who provides a bit of drama on her own. Dale, the youngest brother in the clan (Jeremy Strong), is a bit slow, but extremely good-natured; his poignant observations are well-timed.
As events and the trial progress and the prosecutor (played by Billy Bob Thornton) makes his points toward conviction, more of the judge’s character and his personal demons come to light, though one feels that one hasn’t met them all. One gets much the same feeling as one negotiates his own family, and this process of discovery through Hank’s eyes rings true with the audience.
Actor Robert Downey Jr. and Director David Dobkin surprised Heartland Film Festival attendees with a post-screening audience. Dobkin discusses the film saying “You see everything through Hank’s eyes. You know only what he knows.” And the thoughts and revelations each twist the cocky Hank in a new direction.
Spending time in a Q and A actor, it becomes apparent that Downey clearly likes this script. As star and co-executive producer, he says he often tells himself to “Beware the ‘passion project.’ We [actors] are neurotic enough, without a big stress load.”
As for working with Robert Duvall, Downey says “He was sweet to me and tough on David. He has an unmatched passion for the sanctity of the moment.”
Two particularly strong female roles shine. First is courtesy Ms. Farmiga, whose Samantha made the best of a bad hand life dealt her, explaining to Hank, “Whatever had or hadn’t happened in the past, I was going to be the hero of my own movie.”
A second is Hank’s grade-school-age daughter, who provides a tiny magnet which holds all the Palmer men in civilized check.
The Judge could have resulted in a morose story, with betrayal, disjointed marriages, abandonment, death, cancer, long-held grudges, and its ambiguous heroes, but Dobkin kept the tension on as long as it worked, and then released a bit of it just in time.
Downey asked rhetorically, “Who wants to watch a movie that’s just about ‘the case?’” The body blows are in there, but they’re devastating in their softness. As Dobkin put it, “It’s hard enough to get people to come to theaters anyway. When they come, they’d better be entertained.”
Downey confessed, “I love watching movies so much. And sometimes I’m in movies I love… and that’s nice.”
As was the evening.
The movie opens nationwide on October 10; the Heartland Film Festival begins October 16.