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19 October 2014

The Judge: “A Middle Child Syndrome Story” (Film Review)

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Reviewed by Roghadal Saint-Michel
(Toronoto, Canada)

Directed by David Dobkin; starring Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall and Vera Farmiga

A hotshot lawyer comes back to a small town where he grew up to attend his mothers' funeral, carrying with him loads of baggage from a past that is about to unfold.

A seemingly short planned weekend turned into an agonizing excursion of family drama that has now crept up on him when his father, a highly regarded judge gets involved in a murder.  Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.)  is now compelled to defend his father (Robert Duvall) when Hank realized that a small-time attorney would most likely lose the case and put his father in jail.

This courtroom drama has been told a gazillion times in Hollywood films. Of late, films like “On Golden Pond,” “August: Osage County,” “One True Thing” weaves a tale about children who are forced to confront their own demons by revisiting their relationship with their parents.

Although most of the aforementioned films explored the mother-son or mother-daughter relationships, Paul Schrader ‘s “Affliction" (1998) zeroed in on the violence as if it were genetic and were passed on from father to son. This is one of the few films that profoundly dissected the father-son relationship.

Meanwhile, “Ordinary People" (1980) is a good complimentary film to "The Judge." The guilt possessed by the main lead in this Robert Redford's masterpiece is now carried by Downey's character.  This time the domineering mother is gone and the focus is shifted to the father/the judge. The father is a strong-willed but aging as he slowly loses his mental faculties because of a debilitating medical condition. Robert Duvall gave a brilliant performance highlighting his character’s strained relationship with his son, which is tested further when they are forced to work together.

In a way, "The Judge" is almost an extension of what happens after the middle son in "Ordinary People" has moved on after a tragic event that caused the family's unraveling. In “The Judge,” the middle son is now a successful lawyer. He has to prove his worth and possibly his acceptance back to the fold by defending his own father. However, the case is a mere catalyst to drive the family drama. Old wounds are opened, and in a grand symbolic scene in the film, dirt is swept under the old rug and flung open during an explosive tornado scene.

Much has been written about the curse of the middle child: the birth order that is neither favoured as the first born nor precious as the last child. The middle child strives to be recognized by acting up or over-achieving. However, the middle born is deprived of parental blessings that he richly deserved, although sometimes the middle child only perceives the supposed dismissal.  The middle child feels unrecognized even in his or her adult life and therefore negatively or positively overcompensates.

Robert Downey Jr. masterfully understood his character’s dilemma. His Hank Palmer is a bundle of contraction of achievement and insecurities. The hankering to be loved is camouflaged by his cocky disposition in his personal and professional life.

Written with the small town mentality, this courtroom drama succeeds because the voyeurism about a family affair escalates like a national crisis in a typical small town. Ordinary folks care about the comings and goings of the people whom they personally know. If this case happened in a big city like Chicago or New York, the story will just be dismissed as a trivial domestic problem. Nevertheless, in a small town where everyone knows everyone's business, people will care and so will you.

OTHER REVIEWS by Roghadal Saint-Michel
Gone Girl
Stranger by the Lake
Mula sa Kung Saan Ang Noon

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