The Judge is a 2014 American legal drama film directed by David Dobkin. The film stars Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard and Billy Bob Thornton. The film was released in the United States on October 10, 2014.
Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a successful attorney in Chicago. When Hank receives news his mother has just died, the judge grants his case a continuance. Before returning to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana to attend the funeral, Hank argues with his neglected, unfaithful wife, Lisa, whom he is divorcing.
In Carlinville, Hank reunites with his older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), a tire shop owner, and his autistic younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong). Hank’s estranged father is Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) of Carlinville’s criminal court. It’s revealed that the two have been estranged due to the Judge’s harsh treatment of his son in light of his youthful indiscretions, including a car accident when Hank was seventeen that had ruined Glen’s future MLB career and resulted in his father sending Hank to juvenile detention rather than the recommended community service or otherwise helping his son.
From the courtroom gallery, Hank discreetly watches his father presiding a case. During the proceedings, the Judge seems momentarily confused when he is unable to recall his long-time bailiff’s name. The morning after the funeral, Hank notices the Judge’s Cadillac has the right-front headlight and fender damaged and accuses his father, a recovered alcoholic, of driving intoxicated. The Judge reacts defensively, having no memory of an accident. Hank’s strained family relationship is further complicated by his former girlfriend, Samantha Powell. He comes to believe her college-student daughter, that he had earlier flirted with, may be his child, though it is later learned his married brother, Glen, is the father.
The next day, after arguing with his father, Hank vows never to return to Carlinville and leaves for the airport. Just before Hank’s flight takes off, Glen calls to say the Judge is a suspect in a fatal hit and run accident. The victim, Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), is a recently released ex-convict who Judge Palmer had sentenced to twenty years in prison for a murder that he had committed after the Judge had earlier given Blackwell a light sentence for shooting the victim’s house up.
Judge Palmer is indicted after police forensics confirm Blackwell’s blood is on the Judge’s Cadillac. Judge Palmer is charged with second-degree murder. C.P. Kennedy (Dax Shepard) is hired as the Judge’s defense attorney. When his defense proves ineffective, Hank takes over as lead counsel. While preparing for trial, Hank learns the Judge is undergoing chemotherapy for terminal cancer. The Judge’s inability to remember the accident or previously recall his bailiff’s name may be a side effect of chemotherapy. During this time, Hank’s daughter, Lauren, arrives for a short visit, meeting her grandfather for the first time and bonding with him.
At the trial, Judge Palmer, honor-bound to his ethical responsibility, insists on testifying. He scuttles his own defense by testifying he is unable to remember the accident, but believes he may have intentionally killed Blackwell. Hank pushes the Judge until he reveals that he had previously given Blackwell a lighter sentence, the biggest mistake of his career, because Blackwell’s circumstances had reminded the Judge of Hank and he’d seen the troubled son that the Judge had refused to help in the young man. Judge Palmer is convicted on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to four years in the Indiana State Prison.