Light is a universal symbol of truth. Though we associate it with warmth and openness, light carries a burden of pain as well. Stare into a floodlight and your eyes will water. Lasers—concentrated beams of light—can burn and cut as well as repair. Sometimes a light is so blinding that it obscures all but itself.
In The Judge, truth hurts as often as it heals. Hank Palmer, a hotshot lawyer who helps thugs win in court, hides behind his quick wit and sunglasses. He has sworn off his father, the upstanding Judge Joseph Palmer, and his small Indiana hometown for a modern Chicago house and estranged wife and daughter. He plans on never coming back to Indiana until his mother dies. Even when he does return, Hank does not support his family—he makes out with a young barmaid his first night back, and he stands in the corner after the funeral as his father hardly looks him in the eye. Too many contentious secrets separate Hank, his father, and his two brothers. But when Hank’s father is accused of purposefully running over an ex-con he once sentenced to prison, Hank feels compelled to stay and fight his father’s case.
Throughout the film, light streams into the camera through windows and around buildings. The audience must look straight into the light, even when it obscures the view of the rest of the shot. In the darkest rooms—such as the cellar where autistic brother Dale splices film—the light still enters as projected home movies flicker against the wall, bringing back repressed memories.
If anything, this light symbolizes how the characters themselves crawl, squinting, out of their self-imposed secrecy into the often painful truth. Though Carlinville, Indiana, looks like a Norman Rockwell painting, every character hides a scarred past. Hank holds a crime record. Glenn, Hank’s older brother, had to give up baseball after an accident. Sam, Hank’s high school sweetheart, carries on while hiding some of her past romantic mistakes. A large part of the film revolves around how the aging Judge Joseph forgot the events from the night of the accident—events hidden in the dark, but revealed in the stinging light of truth.
Joseph maintains his reputation as a merciful and tough judge because he prioritizes integrity. When he and Hank exchange stories about their favorite lawyers, Hank names a high-powered coworker who never lost a case. Joseph, however, reminisces about a lawyer friend who honestly defended a guilty man. His career foundered, and old friends rejected him in church—but the lawyer worked for justice. Even when reputation fails, doing right is what ultimately matters. Joseph hopes the town will fly the flag at “half-staff” upon his death, but he is willing to abandon a lifetime reputation to uphold justice.
The film moves slowly through this kind of character development. Subplots such as Hank’s relationship with high school sweetheart Sam, the death of Hank’s mother, and a visit from Hank’s young daughter contribute to the trudging pace. However, the slow script also allows Downey Jr. and Duvall to give wonderfully nuanced performances. Hank is more like his father than he realizes. Both are stubborn men with a passion for law. Though they hurt each other deeply, each is the other’s strongest defense. They outwardly despise each other because they adore each other in spite of their flaws.
For a film that grounds itself so strongly in the light, Hank’s romantic relationships muddy the waters. He abandoned Sam more than 20 years ago. Yet when he returns for just a few days, Sam shamelessly tries to renew their lust. Meanwhile, Hank allows his own marriage to founder as he throws himself into his father’s case. We realize along with Hank that marriage was meant to last. During an impromptu nighttime driving lesson, Hank’s daughter Lauren confronts her dad about his impending divorce. Her schoolmates’ parents all divorced: “I just thought it would never happen to me,” she tells him. Hank stares into the darkness—he feels his daughter’s pain. Yet even though Hank heals all his other relationships, he allows his marriage to atrophy.
As Hank proves through his journey with his father, relationships are worth the pain and struggle of healing. Hank’s wife does not want a divorce, at least at the beginning of the film—she wants him, his attention and love. But Hank does not apply his newfound integrity to his marriage. Neither abandoning marriage nor picking up an affair with an old girlfriend accurately reflects the truth about lasting family relationships. This flaw rots at the core of an otherwise tight script: The film’s female characters are among the worst developed. Hank’s wife hardly appears, and Sam is the typical romantic co-lead with a guessable secret.
While in many ways the film follows the plot-twist conventions of the courtroom drama (including hard language), the film shines in its cinematography, acting, and theme. In a world of darkness, we need relationships where we can be utterly vulnerable. We need friends with whom we can walk, hand-in-hand, toward the light.
In Plato’s cave analogy, the classical philosopher wrote that the uninitiated who first leave their dark prison cannot stand the sunlight. As their eyes adjust, they look at shadows, then the world around them, and then the sun itself. I find it telling that during one scene well into the film, as Hank rides his bike through town, he stretches out his arms and lifts his face toward the sky. His eyes are closed, but he does not wear his sunglasses. Truth hurts. But it also frees and heals.
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