His honour in the dock
THE Judge is another of those films that begin with a dysfunctional family coming together for a funeral, and my hopes weren’t high. I’d read that Jack Nicholson had turned down the role of the ailing judge (how good would that have been); that Robert Downey Jr, whom I last saw in an Iron Man costume, was playing the smart lawyer; that Nick Schenk’s original screenplay had been rewritten by someone called Bill Dubuque; that a character is sprayed with urine in a public toilet in the opening scene; and the whole thing, described in the internet guides as a “comedy-drama”, ran for well over two hours. None of this inspired confidence. But never judge a film by advance publicity. Directed by David Dobkin, The Judge is among the year’s most satisfying entertainments: rich, humane, much of it greatly moving.
It is true that the best bits take place in a courtroom, and courtroom dramas, as we know, are a sure-fire formula for suspense. They’re like a footy grand final — a struggle between opposing sides played according to rules before a partisan audience under the eye of an allpowerful referee (or judge). I rather enjoy all that gavel-banging, with lawyers approaching the bench and cries of objection, sustained or overruled. They’re as much part of Hollywood culture as they are of the US legal system. The Judge may be overlong and burdened with too many subplots, but the courtroom scenes are as gripping as anything in The Verdict or Anatomy of a Murder. And anchoring everything is a performance of compelling dignity and gravitas by Robert Duvall, now 83, and like Nicholson, Clint Eastwood or Robert Redford in their advanced years, an undoubted Hollywood icon.
Duvall plays Joseph Palmer, a judge of the old school, upright and universally respected in his home town of Carlinvale, Indiana. Of his three sons, the most successful is Hank (Downey), a sharp-witted Chicago defence attorney who specialises in getting white-collar criminals off the hook. Naturally his father disapproves of him. We are given a sample of Hank’s courtroom tactics in an early scene when he vets prospective jurors at a murder trial by asking them to tell the court the words on their car bumperstickers. One guy’s sticker reads: “Wife and dog missing — reward for dog.” It’s not clear whether the guy makes it to the jury, but it’s clear The Judge is shaping up as a good example of a Hollywood comedy-drama.
Back home in Carlinvale for his mother’s funeral, Hank is reluctantly reunited with his grieving father and learns to his dismay that the judge is suspected of a hit-and-run killing. The victim, left dead on the roadside, is a low-life criminal whom the judge had every reason to hate and fear. The evidence is strong, and the case is eagerly pursed by Billy Bob Thornton’s tough prosecuting attorney. Hank acts as a kind of unofficial defence lawyer for his father, observing the proceedings in court and counselling Joseph behind the scenes. Dobkin keeps a firm hand on the essentials. I could have done without the sentimental ending, that business with Hank’s ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) and his unfaithful wife, the explicit depiction of Joe’s bathtub incontinence, and the curiously offbeat retard jokes (Joseph’s youngest son is the mentally challenged Dale, who likes filming at random with an old-fashioned home movie camera), but the film never loses its grip. Duvall is a specialist with slightly deranged, brokendown characters, and he’s done nothing better than this.
HG WELLS wrote a famously scary science fiction fantasy, The Island of Dr Moreau, which has been filmed at least three times, notably as The Island of Lost Souls, a horror classic with Charles Laughton. Dr Moreau’s island was a hellhole of grotesque animal experiments, with a mad scientist turning jungle creatures into humans. Animal transformations are now a staple subset of the horror genre. Jeff Goldblum was turned into a fly in the second adaptation of George Langelaan’s story, and think of all those werewolf pictures, from Saturday afternoon B-movies to The Howling. I once watched a cheap 1970s shocker with the imaginative title Sssssss, about a mad scientist — they’re all mad, of course — who turned some poor bloke into a king cobra.
You’d think Kevin Smith would be above this sort of thing. He has a wry intelligence and a sharp sense of humour, and is remembered for pleasures such as Chasing Amy and his quirky 1994 comedy Clerks, a big hit in its day. You wonder what persuaded him to make Tusk, which falls neatly into the “comedy-drama-horror” category (oh no). Apparently he was inspired by watching a podcast in which someone calling himself the Kill Bill Kid slices his own leg off with a sword. In Tusk, which Smith wrote and directed, a nerdy character called Wallace Bryton (Justin Long) runs a podcast studio from which similar entertainments are sent to subscribers on the internet. It’s wonderful how some people make a living these days.
Heading off to Canada in search of the Kill Bill Kid, Wallace gets lost in the backwoods of Manitoba and stumbles into a spooky old house where he’s kidnapped by Howard Howe, a psycho played in wonderfully creepy style by Michael Parks, whose avuncular charms kept reminding me of Rolf Harris. Awakening from a drugged sleep, Wallace discovers his legs are missing, amputated by the monstrous Howard, who plans to turn Wallace into a walrus. A walrus isn’t everyone’s favourite animal but, as always, one gives high marks to Smith for originality. This must be the weirdest film I have seen for a long time. For once the term “comedy-drama-horror” seems wholly appropriate, if not unanswerable.
Parts of it are funny, parts are suspenseful and parts of it — to put it mildly — are hideously awful. Horrible may be a better word than horrific. There’s a lot of emphasis on Canadian-American jokes (a branch of comedy unlikely to strike chords with local audiences) and an improbable backstory involving Howard’s affection for a walrus that he credits with saving his life. Smith likes filming in long unbroken takes. Most of the cast were unfamiliar to me, though Haley Joel Osment, the scared youngster who saw ghosts in The Sixth Sense, makes a pleasing appearance as Wallace’s podcasting offsider. The detective leading the search for Wallace is listed in the credits as Guy Lapointe — a pseudonym for a major Hollywood star whose identity we are asked not to reveal. Audiences should have no trouble spotting him. I’m still trying to decide what to make of the movie.
Robert Downey Jr and Billy Bob Thornton in
The Judge, top; Justin Long and Genesis Rodriguez in Tusk, left