I’m a product of the Midwest.
Oh, I was born and raised in California, but my family has deep roots in Kansas.
My mother was from Plainville, pop. 1500. My father, from Stockton—an even smaller town just a few miles to the north.
My fondest memories are of the summers I spent there in what my grandfather called “God’s country”—gently rolling hills clothed in fields of wheat, graced by ribbons of trees tracing the courses of rivers and streams, and every once in a while, a thick cluster of elms with a steeple, a grain elevator and a water tower pushing into the sky above.
If it was God’s country, it was also hard country—as hard as the God of the Old Testament, subject to flood and famine, drought and dust, blizzard and tornado.
It was hard country, and only hard people could survive it.
Two of my favorites were my Aunt Gwen and my Uncle Fat.
Fat…it sounds like an awful name but it wasn’t—it was an ironic, affectionate tribute to a man who was all sinew, muscle and bone.
Fat was a big man who’d spent so much time out in the sun that he gave new meaning to the phrase “red-neck.” He used to let me ride with him on his big red tractor across the fields of his farm outside of Stockton. He called me “Danny Boy,” and it was he, along with my grandfather, who introduced me to the outdoor life.
He’d tried life in California but couldn’t stand it. He turned his back on the easy living here in the Golden State and returned to Kansas, where he and my Aunt Gwen barely managed to eke out a living.
A unpainted three-room shack, an outhouse, two pumps in place of plumbing, and food that came mostly from the garden behind their home. By any reasonable standard, they were as poor as those proverbial church mice, but in my mind, they were rich—in their love for each other, for the land, for their way of life.
Aunt Gwen was a tiny woman—rail thin, maybe five feet tall, couldn’t have weighed a hundred pounds. Looked a lot like the wife in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” She took care of the garden and the hogs, who lived in fear of her! When my uncle came down with a terminal illness and began to waste away, this tiny person would hoist him up and move him wherever he needed to be.
Right after he passed away, they discovered oil on the farm. Suddenly they…I should say, she…was rich. Unable to maintain the farm by herself, she retained the mineral rights and moved to town. She shot her beloved dog Joe because she couldn’t bear the thought of him leashed, confined to a city lot instead of running free across the fields of the farm.
She was the strongest woman I’ve ever known, and he was the warmest, most generous man. They embodied the land—its beauty and its hardness.
What has any of this to do with David Dobkin’s film, The Judge?
Robert Duvall’s Joseph Palmer, we’re told, is a product of heartland Indiana. Known to everyone including his family as “Judge,” he is rock-hard in his belief in himself and in the old-fashioned values he enforces in his courtroom, among them respect for authority and acceptance of responsibility for one’s actions. For him, the law is nothing short of a moral code.
His son Hank (Robert Downey, Jr.) is his opposite. He’s exchanged the small town of his birth for the bright lights of the big city. Urban through and through, he’s glib, fast-talking criminal attorney whose moral code is as slippery as his tongue is smooth. He sees the law as something to be manipulated rather than enforced, and he’s manipulated it into massive amounts of money by putting guilty men back on the streets of Chicago.
The film opens with the death of his mother and his reluctant return to the town of his birth, where he soon finds himself defending the father who despises him, in a hit-and-run case that threatens to escalate to murder.
We follow him as he leaves the towers of the city for the open plains of Indiana—driving through a cornfield so flat, open and endless that we suspect it’s the product of some digital genius in the special effects department.
Eventually, he arrives in Carlinville, a stunningly beautiful village surrounded by heavily wooded hills, bisected by a fast-flowing river, graced by a double waterfall and a big covered bridge right in the heart of town. A place so picturesque you can’t look at without thinking, “Gosh, I’d love to live there.” After all, it has all the beauty of the country along with the upscale bars and charming shops of a city and none of the traffic.
I lived there for eight years outside a small town named Greencastle and I crisscrossed the state by car, but I never saw anything resembling this mythical Carlinville, which reminded me of Middlebury, Vermont and some of the other repackaged, upgraded mill towns of New England.
It was so disorienting and unreal that it kept taking me out the movie.
Worse than that, it made it almost impossible for me to believe that the Judge was a product of this place. He could easily have been a citizen of Plainville or Greencastle or Bruce Dern’s hometown in Nebraska, but he sure as hell couldn’t have come from this upscale Northeastern village (which a little research revealed is actually Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts!).
The choice of this location—the director thought it more “filmic” than anything to be found in the real Indiana—is a fraud, one of many the movie perpetrates on its audiences.
The director and his writers ask us to believe that Hank could urinate without consequence on his courtroom opponent in a Chicago trial, that the Judge would rather have an inept, farcical excuse of a local lawyer defend him in a life-and-death trial rather than his own brilliant son, that judges in Indiana are allowed to ignore conflict of interest statutes and preside over the trials of relatives, that…well, you get the picture.
There is everything wrong with this picture…everything except the acting. Hank is a role tailor-made for Downey, Jr., and he plays it so well he actually manages to uncover new aspects of his established persona. Duvall seems born to play the Judge—a comment one might make about virtually every diverse role he’s ever done. He is, quite simply, one of our greatest living actors.
Together, they make us care about father and son…in spite of the plot contrivances, the distracting subplots, the slow pace, the phony presentation of place. Thanks to the two Roberts and a remarkable supporting cast, the film has an emotional reality that transcends the fraudulence and contrivance of the narrative.
See this film.
My warm-hearted uncle, my tough-as-leather grandfather and my even tougher aunt might not recognize the Midwestern town of this movie, but I’m suspect they’d embrace Judge Joseph Palmer as a brother.