In the end, it’s about fathers and sons. Which means that it’s complicated.
The judge is Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) who’s been a sitting judge in a small town in Indiana for 42 years. He knows virtually everyone in town, and they know him. He’s accustomed to people standing when he enters the room – and not just when his court is in session. His reputation as a tough but fair-minded jurist means everything to him. Even if he’s neither as tough nor as fair-minded as he likes to think of himself.
His beloved wife of 50 years has just died and the whole town turns out for her funeral… and also at the house afterwards (though nobody thought it odd or unusual that he was still holding court that morning). Judge Palmer has three sons. The first, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), was the athlete; maybe he could have made it to the big leagues as a pitcher, but unfortunately he got in a car wreck in high school that messed up his pitching hand. The car wreck was blamed on his middle son, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.), who’d already shown signs of being a restless, arrogant, too-smug-for-his-own-good glib jokester, whose way of getting attention was to get in trouble, then criticize and put down those who tried to help him. “A piece of work,” as they say. He’s the kind of guy who left the suffocating small town and never looked back – not even to visit. A fact that the judge always held against him. Glen was just as glad not to have to deal with Hank, either. The only one happy to see him return for the funeral was the youngest brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong), who’s one of those that’s not all there, but wouldn’t hurt a flea. Dale brings out the best in Hank, perhaps because the element of competitiveness is completely removed. Hank himself has become a hyper-combative big-city trial lawyer, who’s brilliant, yes, but also condescending and flippant and almost completely self-centered. The only person who opens up his warmth, besides Dale, is his little girl, Lauren (Emily Tremblay). But since Hank is busy estranging himself from his wife and her mother, that positive relationship is in jeopardy. And Hank doesn’t want to bring her to his dad’s funeral, despite her little-girl pleadings. Hank figures this is something he’s going to have to take care of by himself and as quickly as possible.
Of course, it’s neither quick nor easy. Hank runs into his high school girlfriend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), and discovers that there’s still some current there, but he’s not sure yet if it’s another short-circuit. Hank and his dad clash publicly and loudly, arguing with uncomfortably hurtful vehemence in private. There’s obviously love lost between them. With fathers and sons, there’s always the silent dynamic of “I want to show you what it’s like to be a man”/”I need to find out on my own how to be a man.” With fathers and sons, there’s always a push-pull of “I love you/I want you to be independent”/”I love you/I need you to give me my own space.” With fathers and sons, there’s always the tension of “I made some mistakes and I don’t want you to make the same ones”/”I probably won’t make your mistakes, but I’ll make my own, thanks.” With fathers and sons, women intersect significantly, but the basic relationship is still like am open trunk line, an uninterrupted connection where similarities sometimes mean that they’re too much alike to recognize their solidarity. And differences that might threaten to undo them actually become, themselves, a kind of common ground where there might be some meeting in the middle.
Complicated? It is.
And so, thankfully, are the characters in this film: suitably complex to maintain our interest. Sure, they’re inconsistent. Of course, they keep secrets from each other and from us. Naturally, they’re flawed. And so is this movie: a little schmaltzy (dreamy misty scenes of the tranquil fishing pond), a little melodramatic at times and, unfortunately, a little too long. But overall, it’s worth the viewing, because the performances are solid and the dynamics are worth contemplating.
Ronald P. Salfen is the parish associate at Woodhaven Presbyterian Church in Irving, Texas.