Robert Duvall plays the titular judge and I have to take this time to voice my distaste with a certain criticism I have been hearing about Duvall's performance. The criticism being that he should not have been nominated here because he could do this performance in his sleep. That seems to suggest that Duvall should deserve less credit because he's a great actor, which is ridiculous. Also if you were to think about how a few of his contemporaries would have handled the part, if they were doing it in their sleep, that idea does not make a whole lot of sense. Robert De Niro for example is a horribly bland performer when he does not try. Al Pacino, in this sort of role, would probably be hooting and hollering all over the place turning the Judge into a crazed caricature, if we got the coasting Pacino. Well Duvall has not seemed to have left his enthusiasm for acting behind over the years, and that can be seen in his performance here as Judge Joseph Palmer.
We are first introduced to the Judge as presides over a minor issue of child support. Duvall naturally brings the needed command for playing who is suppose to be a semi-legendary Judge. He has that presence that shows that Palmer owns the courtroom. Duvall is acerbic enough as Palmer criticizes both the plaintiff and the defendant, but with a marginal bit of empathy as though Palmer believes he is teaching them with his words. We never see him in this role again but Duvall establishes himself as the Judge quite well. After this point we see him with his three sons and we see how Palmer is as a father. Duvall actually portrays his rougher in this regard as he so bluntly portrays the way Palmer puts his demands of his sons right to the point without compromise, effectively alludes to the later revelations regarding his past with Downey's Hank. Duvall simply is great at being a hard ass and leaves no question why Hank is so bitter towards him.
What Duvall does really well here is just making the most of little moments though that allude to a softer side of Palmer. One great moment early on is when the Judge speaks at his wife grave and is moving as he portrays that the Judge loved his wife. It's a short moment but Duvall gets about as much as one could get out of it. Duvall is also good in his brief moments where he interacts with Hank's daughter. Duvall honestly brings out some sweetness as he shows the judge as far more willing to openly express his love his grandchild than his children. Another being when Palmer describes a misjudgment of his where he gave leniency to a man who soon afterwards murdered a teenage girl. Again Duvall is quite good in quietly suggesting the way this decision has haunted him. Of course the crux of Duvall's performance, and the film, and probably what should have been the sole focus of the film, that being the relationship between father and son. They are forced to face their past when the judge is accused of killing the man he had given leniency to.
Duvall and Downey are not always given the most original material or even the best dialogue but they both try to their best with the material they are given. They both convey the bitterness between the two of them because of Hank's screw ups in the past and the harsh way in which the judge dealt with them. In their scenes of fighting, particularly over the strategy in which to handle the judge's defense since Hank wants to take any angle while the judge refuses to lower himself in anyway whatsoever even to save himself from prison, the each deliver the much needed passion and intensity. Some of the situations around their fights, particularly one involving a storm and an excessively convenient movie made by Hank's brother, are almost ridiculous in their setup. The thing is though Duvall and Downey do make it feel as genuine as they possible can because they are convincing in creating the difficult relationship between father and son.
The two even do well in portraying the gradual understanding between the two because neither rush this and leave some tension even as the grow closer. One very good scene actually is when Hank helps the judge after he has had diarrhea due to a side effect of his chemotherapy. That scene could have gone very wrong, like some other scenes in the film, but Duvall and Downey are really good in it. They don't even say much but their interactions just wonderfully suggest a tenderness and understanding between father and son. Now the film ends with a courtroom testimony by Duvall as all is revealed so to speak. The scene probably tries to tackle too much at once but Duvall is consistently good. Whether its portraying the hatred he had for the man, the sad revelation that his unfortunate leniency came from seeing to much of his son in the eventual, or his simple resignation after the verdict, Duvall delivers in every moment. What poignancy and power that can be found in the scene is discovered by Duvall's performance, much like the majority of the film. Robert Duvall's work here does not make this a great film or even a good one. When the film does work though it is due to Duvall and this is one fine example of a great actor doing his best to elevate sub par material.