Now there’s a label that fits lawyer Hank Palmer to a T. Unscrupulous works, too. Of course, he would prefer something closer to brilliant. But whatever put-down his opponents might want to tag him with, this is the truth: Hank is a winner. He’s a guy who knows how to use the law, his nimble wits and any manner of verbal fireworks to his advantage in the courtroom. And that’s all that really matters to him.
Some may say that his rich, white-collar criminal clients are generally corrupt and always guilty. To which Hank will usually reply, “And?” After all, everybody deserves a defense. Besides, innocent people can’t afford his fees … or pay for the Jag in his parking spot.
Hank will admit that he’s hit a bit of a rough patch lately, however. Not in the courtroom. In life. His marriage to his model-pretty wife is on the skids. He’s a little worried about where his adolescent daughter will end up if there’s a divorce. And he just got word that his mom passed away.
As bad as that last bit of news is, even worse is the fact that he’ll now have to head back to Carlinville, Ind., that comatose little burg he turned his back on so many years before. He’ll have to go back and face his brothers. And deal once again with the Judge.
Judge Joseph Palmer is his cantankerous, holier-than-thou coot of a father. The man who rode him so hard as a kid. The hardnosed parent who threw him into juvenile detention at the age of 17. The disapproving so-and-so who wouldn’t even bury the hatchet long enough to show up at his own son’s graduation from law school. Even when said son graduated first in his class.
When Hank gets back, uh, “home,” he receives exactly the kind of reception he expects: warm hugs from his brothers and an icy handshake from the Judge. Oh well, it’ll all be over soon. But as much as Hank is determined to get in and get right back out after the funeral, something happens that derails his plans.
The Judge is arrested for murder.
That sanctimonious justice who presided over the Carlinville court for the last four decades is inexplicably accused of mowing down a abhorrent slug of a former defendant with his car. The man’s blood was found in the vehicle’s battered grill. And there are no skid marks at the scene.
In light of this damning evidence, a special prosecutor is being brought in to try the case. And all the Judge can say is that he can’t remember what happened. He’s “missing time,” he claims.
So now Hank’s going to have to spend time defending his lifelong nemesis. In spite of his near hatred for his father, in spite of his own internal objections, in spite of the Judge’s objections, he’ll have to stay in town and win this seemingly unwinnable case.
Those words also fit Hank. Whether he likes all of them or not.
Can a father and son—at odds for years—find some kind of reconciliation? This movie says yes! Hank and the Judge both have long lists of blood pressure-raising accusations and wrongdoings to pin on each other. But they also both learn to see the good of the man underneath the mess, and come to forgive. They eventually praise each other’s strengths. And Hank selflessly sees his father through some of the most painful and difficult moments of the older man’s life.
This newfound focus on relational reparations also spurs Hank to reach out to other people who are important to him—from his older brother Glen to his former girlfriend Samantha to his young daughter Lauren. He expresses his love to each, and in some cases asks for forgiveness.
For his part, and for all of his stern hardheadedness, it becomes apparent that the Judge really does love and want the best for his wife and kids. He also reaches out to his adolescent granddaughter, hugging and kissing her the first time they meet. In court, he tells a recalcitrant father, “You and you alone are responsible for your actions.”
When approaching his mother’s open casket, Hank fumble-handedly crosses himself in an attempt to show respect. He later asks the Judge if he believes there’s something after death. The old man replies that since he’s 72 and in the midst of Stage IV cancer, “What choice do I have?”
Hank talks about two teen boys getting high in a car together and having sex. He calls a girl “semen-breath.” He also makes out with a young woman in a local bar who he later fears may be his daughter by way of his past girlfriend Samantha. Hank and Samantha make out passionately, caressing and groping.
Hank gives his wallet to his mentally challenged brother Dale, whereupon the young man reports, “You have a naked lady in here!” (We don’t see the picture.) The Judge crudely goads Hank by talking about his current wife playing “hide the pickle” with another man.
Hank accidentally slices his hand. He tumbles off a bicycle. We see a crumpled car after an accident. We hear the story of a man who murdered his 16-year-old girlfriend.
Close to 30 f-words and 15 s-words join more than a half-dozen uses of “a–,” and one or two uses each of “d–n,” “h—” and “b–ch.” God’s and Jesus’ names are misused over a dozen times. (God’s is combined with “d–n” eight or so times.) Crude slang is used for male genitalia.
Hank, Glen and Dale drink beer and shots at a bar, along with other patrons. The Judge, a 20-year-sober alcoholic, has Scotch while at a very low point. (Hank shares a drink with him.) Hank confronts a cop about him “huffing whippets” as a teen. Samantha says her daughter is the result of a combination of “Kool-Aid and Everclear.” A deceased man is said to have had enough drug and alcohol content in his bloodstream that it would have been difficult for him to stand upright.
A running joke involves lawyers vomiting. Hank urinates on another lawyer while standing at a urinal. And while it’s not played for laughs, there is a difficult-to-watch scene focused on the Judge’s worsening illness and his inability to control his bowels and bladder. Hank openly wishes his father had died rather than his mother.
In some ways, this movie feels like it was designed to give seasoned thespians Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall lots of dramatic scenery to chew. In fact, it’s as tailor-made for Downey and his personal brand of snarky verbal gymnastics as any non-iron-suit-clad role might be.
Beneath the glib asides and beetle-browed courtroom angst, though, this judge-accused-of-murder tale is far less about legal entanglements than it is a slowly unspooling story of an estranged father and son—both chained to years of accumulated emotional baggage. Both men are weighed down by anger, guilt and remorse. And both are sinners questing for redemption—of a relational kind if not a spiritual one.
In that sense, this pic delivers encouraging messages of familial forgiveness. It becomes a satisfying if overly long-feeling saga of a father and son finding the bond they never knew through the pains of life they’d have rather avoided.
Of course, it’s those realistically depicted pains—played out in coarse verbal interactions, harsh accusations and wince-worthy visuals—that give this pic its R rating and make it, if you’re asking for my verdict, difficult to cozy up to with a popcorn and soda.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.