Doubt (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Doubt Poster

It's one of life's bitter ironies that one of the first things lost to moral certainty is the capacity for compassion. Righteousness is a cold, hard position, and an unshakeable one. It allows no room for one of the most basic tenants of human existence: doubt. Faith exists not in counterpoint to certainty but to doubt. And those in religious institutions who wish to commune with their fellows must never lose sight of the fact that doubt defines and binds us. Few of us have the capacity to defend a position of uncompromising certainty.

Doubt, John Patrick Shanley's screen adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play, is the story of doubt and certainty in direct conflict. And it's a tale that enters a moral quagmire from which it never fully emerges. Those seeking clear answers to difficult questions will not find them here. Movies often provide resolution and catharsis. These are rarely qualities uncovered in real life situations, and that is mirrored here. One is likely to leave Doubt pondering all that has transpired but perhaps no closer to "truth" than any of the characters are. Not since David Mamet's Oleanna has a play-to-film translation offered such difficult to digest intellectual substance.

The setting is simple: The Saint Nicholas Church School in the Bronx. It's late autumn 1964, with Christmas approaching. There are four principal characters: Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the progressive priest who presides over the school and its church; Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the old-school nun who sees sin and wrongdoing everywhere; Sister James (Amy Adams), the young and idealistic newcomer; and Mrs. Muller (Viola Davis), the mother of a boy who becomes central to the conflict. The nature of the controversy is clear: Did Father Flynn engage in an improper relationship with student Donald Muller (Joseph Foster)? Flynn denies the accusation but Sister Aloysius proclaims no doubt as to his guilt. The two face off against one another, neither giving ground, with Sister James caught in the middle, taking the role of the audience. She hears and sees the evidence for and against Father Flynn and, like those of us watching the movie, arrives at a conclusion but can never be certain that her belief is correct.

Doubt is a showcase for its four main actors. It seems that Meryl Streep receives an acting nomination for every role in which she appears, and it's no wonder. She takes the time to understand every character she plays and, no matter what part she accepts, her portrayal comes with a complete conviction that includes posture, body language, mannerisms, physical appearance, and accent. (You can even see this in fluff like Mamma Mia!) As Sister Aloysius, Streep is in top form. The actress vanishes into the nun's habit and what emerges is a character of nearly monstrous dimensions in her unshakeable moral certainty. One sees her, in her dark costume, as a modern-day representation of those paragons of virtue who condemned witches to burn during the Salem Witch Trials.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is perhaps one of the few working actors today who can hold his own in a scene with Streep, and that's precisely what he does because the movie would fall apart if he was unable to. His portrayal of Father Flynn is strong and confident, showing a great depth of compassion but just enough uncertainty to make us wonder. Amy Adams has a less showy part, but is quietly impressive. She is caught in the middle and, considering her position, provides the most propitious point of entry for the viewer. Viola Davis has the least screen time of the main four but her single extended scene is wrenching and reveals key information about the situation as well as a startling admission.

Beginning with this paragraph, the rest of the review is written with the expectation that readers have some familiarity with Doubt (either the play or the movie). Is the term "spoiler" appropriate for a story in which uncertainty is a primary characteristic and plot twists don't really apply? Perhaps not, but I'm providing this warning to allow those who wish to see the movie unfiltered to pause here and come back later. Some of what follows is speculation.

The central question of Doubt relates to the nature of the relationship between Father Flynn and Donald. There are many possibilities, and the film provides evidence to support nearly every one of them. Shanley (directing for the first time since Joe Versus the Volcano) does not stack the deck and, more importantly, he does not provide an impregnable truth. (But could one expect anything different from a film with the title Doubt?) The film takes place in an era when priests were implicitly trusted but during which we know, based on current news reports, that such trust was abused in some cases. As a result of what has been revealed over the years, both in court and in films like Deliver us from Evil, there is now a tendency to believe that priests are guilty until proven innocent.

By highlighting Father Flynn's love of pressed wildflowers and perfectly groomed nails, it is possible that Shanley may be providing clues about Flynn's sexuality. We know from the conversation between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller that Donald has shown homosexual tendencies. This would provide a common bond between Father Flynn and Donald - not a sexual liaison, but one of compassion and kinship. Father Flynn understands and wants to impart that understanding to a boy who is all alone (not only is he gay, but he's the only black student in an all-white school). My sense is that there is nothing inappropriate in the relationship, but it's not cut-and-dried, and there are indications that all of Father Flynn's past associations may not have been as innocent. Others may process the same information differently and arrive at another conclusion. That's the beauty of the film's screenplay and acting. It does not dictate. It demands that each viewer make up his or her own mind. Some may call this unsatisfying and manipulative. I call it brilliant.

As hot-button an issue as is pedophilia in the priesthood, Doubt deals in subtleties. It asks questions about faith. It acknowledges the importance of vigilance yet, at the same time, cautions against embracing certainty because such an action curtails the search for truth. There's a lot here to digest, but it's not meaningless philosophizing. These characters and the pain of their circumstances become visceral. They are people, not abstractions. They merit understanding, pity, and anger. Doubt is an intellectually and emotionally exhausting and engrossing experience. It is drama of the highest caliber, shaped by words and characters and directed with a simplicity that stands in stark contrast to the complexity of the people and issues on screen.

Doubt (United States, 2008)

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Screenplay: John Patrick Shanley, based on his play
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Howard Shore
U.S. Distributor: Miramax Films
Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2008-12-10
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Mature Themes)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1