Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a Chicago trial lawyer at the top of his game. Prosecutors hate him, and the guilty who can pay his fees love him, because he helps them go free. He has money, and the trappings of success, but a cynicism that cannot be disguised. You realize very early on that he is a damaged person, and I found myself wanting to know why.
As the movie opens, he’s about to do it again, when he answers his cell phone as the Judge comes to the bench and calls the court to order. He asks the Judge for a continuance, as he has just learned that his mother passed away.
As he prepares to go back home, we learn that while he is talented and obviously wealthy, his marriage to the trophy wife with “the ass of a high school volleyball player” is on the rocks because she is sleeping with an old boyfriend, and while he blithely discusses their inevitable divorce, he tells her that he will be getting custody of their daughter.
Home, as it turns out, is Indiana, and as we begin to learn, he is less than welcome there. His father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) is the local judge, and dispenses justice as only a small town judge can, as we see when Hank visits the court on his arrival in town. Their grief is shared by Hank’s older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and their retarded little brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong). There is no love lost between the Judge and his middle son, yet Judge Palmer manages to muster a modicum of civility when addressing the son who left, and didn’t speak to him for years. Having witnessed the Judge’s performance in the courtroom, however, Hank suspects that his father is drinking. On the evening after the funeral, the Judge leaves after thanking Hank for coming to the funeral, claiming he needs to buy eggs. The Palmer boys, however, go to the local watering hole, and stay to close it down. The next morning, Hank happens to discover that there is significant damage to the front of the Judge’s car, and the local Sheriffs want to question him regarding the death of a man he had sentenced to prison years earlier who had coincidentally been run down on the previous night.
As the story unfolds, so does Hank’s history. Downey is the right person to play the character, not because he does brash and confident well, but because he has such a deft touch playing the brash and confident ace attorney who is brought back to confront a past that he has spent decades running from. His little brother’s film hobby ends up causing him to confront both the good parts of his past, which include happier days when the Palmer boys were still boys, images of fishing with the Judge, and his older brother throwing the winning pitch at the state high school championships, and the car accident which ruined forever his big league dreams because Hank was high while driving. But it is a stray image captured by his little brother’s movie camera which provides the clue to a secret that his father has kept from everyone, and which would exculpate him from the first degree murder charge that his father was making it nearly impossible for Hank to defend against.
It clearly is a trying time for Hank, whether it was hosting his daughter, who was meeting her Grandpa for the first time, running into an old girlfriend, and trying to remain on an even keel when presented with the opportunities that the encounter offered, or dealing with the most difficult client he has ever had, with the weight of his brothers’ expectations being as heavy as can be, along with his own realization that, perhaps for the first time in his career, he actually is feeling the responsibility of having his client’s life in his hands.
Anyone who has lived more than a handful of years can tell you that family can be hard…probably because you don’t get to pick them. I enjoyed this movie because it didn’t sugar coat the difficult events between the members of the family, or how they struggled to remain family in spite of them. D’Onofrio’s older brother seems resigned to a life much different from the one he’d expected. He seems to be at peace with Hank’s role in making him the town’s tire shop owner rather than big league pitcher that he was on track to be, and while he does harbor some resentment when it becomes clear that he is going to have to take in his little brother soon, he still appears to be duty bound to do so. In a very revealing scene toward the end, Hank’s ex girlfriend sums up why it is that she still loves him, and in a way, it’s why I could watch the movie, and like him too. The screenplay doesn’t leave him any outs. He has to confront his past, and make peace with it, and along the way, he makes peace with the Judge, too, as an anecdote in an unguarded moment explains all the hopes and dreams he’d had for his middle son, and a gut-wrenching testimony on the witness stand in his own trial explained why he had become so distant from the son he loved at one time. Duvall doesn’t disappoint, as he plays a man of duty and conviction who in the twilight of his career, and the twilight of his life becomes reconciled with his prodigal son, while that son learns that while redemption doesn’t make everything alright, it does free you to move forward without the weight of the past forcing you to run away, or dictating your next action.