Arthur Miller's spirit hovers over The Judge, which features outstanding performances from Robert Duvall and Robert Downey Jr as a father and son at war with one another.
High-flying lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) returns home to Carleyville, Indiana to attend his mother's funeral. At the wake, old tensions re-ignite between Hank and his father, Joe (Robert Duvall). Joe is the district judge, a fascinating mixture of high, preening principle and cussed stubbornness, in Duvall's masterful portrayal.
Wayward as a kid, Hank disappointed the old man and left years ago, shaking the dust of Carleyville behind him. Yet he would come first in his class in Law, as he reminds his father in the middle of another blistering, stand-up row. The explosive relationship between father and son is handled with tremendous power and skill by both actors.
Meanwhile, Hank's brother Glen (Jeremy Strong) was once a baseball ace whose career was effectively ruined in a car accident when Hank was driving. Dale is the childlike youngest brother, who spends his time making home movies. That's a neat way of showing us flashbacks to happier childhood days, to an often moving soundtrack, characterised by Bon Iver's high lonesome, layered chorale.
So, yes, this is definitely a tearjerker, while also turning into a compelling courtroom drama. To say more than this about the legal dimension is effectively to spoil your anticipation for an often brilliant film, which unfortunately has some superfluities.
Billy Bob Thornton is excellent as snaky lawyer Dwight Dickham. However, there is a vaguely unnecessary subplot involving Hank's old flame, a rather unconvincing - and indeed mildly clichéd - barmaid, played by the rather too kittenish Vera Farmiga.
Other than that, The Judge is, in its own way, a must-see. Arthur Miller's taut encounters between fathers and sons must surely have influenced the project, but Miller would have maintained more detachment and coolness in the screenplay. And he just would not have tolerated the barmaid.