“Doubt” has to be the most aptly titled movie of the year. Though it feels like a mystery thriller most of the way through, know this before you see it: the moment of clarity never comes. Writer/director John Patrick Shanley is not interested in who did what, and when, and why, he’s interested with how people act when they don’t know. Within the twisting and turning of “Doubt,” you will find reason to doubt the character of Father Flynn; you will find reason to trust him, as well. You will find reason to doubt the accusations of Sister Aloysius; you will find reason to believe she’s right, as well.
Set at a New York catholic school just before Vatican II, “Doubt” is as much about a time and place as it is about what the characters did, or didn’t, do. Sister Aloysius, played with clear relish by Meryl Streep, runs the school with dragon breath and an iron fist. To her way of seeing things, she can do her job far more effectively is she is feared than if she is loved. This doesn’t mean she doesn’t love the students, only that she doesn’t need them to love her in return. Amy Adams is a much younger, much more soft-hearted teacher under her, who desperately needs to give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Ah, but there’s that word again. Philip Seymour Hoffman is their new superior, Father Flynn, and and darn it if he doesn’t give Adams reason to doubt his character, and his conduct with the students. He also gives Streep plenty of reason to hate him – from writing with ballpoint pens to suggesting they sing Frosty the Snowman (“a pagan hymn about an echanted hat” to her mind) at the Christmas pageant.
At the middle of it all is a young black boy named Donald Miller, the only black kid in a primarily Irish neighborhood. Hoffman pays special attention to him – is it inappropriate attention? When Streep confronts his mother, she does her best to bury her head in the sand – she knows that nothing good can come of making a fuss, for her or her boy. Viola Davis plays the boy’s mother, and has only this one scene, but was nominated for an Oscar for it, and deservedly so. In a movie featuring some of our finest actors doing A+ work, she clearly makes her mark. It’s a powerful scene.
Adams eventually comes to believe that Hoffman is innocent, but Streep is not convinced, perhaps because she doesn’t want to be. And then the title of the movie takes on a new significance. In the priesthood, like in politics, doubt can do even more damage than certainty. Streep does not need to prove that Hoffman is up to no good – she simply needs to cast enough doubt on his character to force him to move on. Near the end, she tells a lie that, in her mind, forces Hoffman to expose himself in his reaction — but I find, upon reflection, that his reaction proves nothing more than that there are other people in the world like Streep, people willing to let their doubts and their prejudices win the day. People who cling to certainty and when certainty doesn’t exist, manufacture it out of whatever is available.
“Doubt” is a tight, almost claustrophobic movie, about the inner workings of people living in a pretty closed world. As a movie it is intense, an actor’s vehicle, and these actors rise to the task. Cinematically, it’s pretty restrained – a few unspectacular sets, a few forgettable establishing shots, and a lot of talking, yelling, doubting and convincing. Dramatically, it’s a firecracker, a tense, exciting, riveting work of art.
- if you’re a fan of theater. “Doubt” started out as a stage play, and definitely has that stage play feel about its writing and direction.
- if you like intense movies with ambiguous endings.
- for actors and fans of acting.
- if you, or someone you care about, was abused by a priest, or other authority figure. “Doubt” will probably feel coy and shallow to you.
- if you need to know who did what and why by the end of the movie. To heck with ambiguity.
- if you’re looking for something suitably cinematic – landscape shots, beautiful cinematography, car chases, explosions, etc.