A film review by Craig J. Koban

Rank: #6

DOUBT jjjj

2008, PG-13, 104 mins.

Sister Aloysius: Meryl Streep / Father Flynn: Philip Seymour Hoffman / Sister James: Amy Adams / Mrs. Miller: Viola Davis / Donald: Joseph Foster II

Directed and written by John Patrick Shanley, based on his play.

"When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God."

Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) in DOUBT



John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT is one of the most painstakingly and provocatively observant character dramas that I have seen in a long while.  The easy label for the film – based on Shanley’s own 2004 Pulitzer Prize winning Off-Broadway play – would be to call it a hot button message flick that is designed to incite polarizing discussions from movie goers…which it will most certainly do.  However, a keener eye would observe that the real crowning achievement of DOUBT is that it daringly parades around its oftentimes-difficult terrain with a skillful, almost deceptive, ambiguity.  


The title of the film is simple, to the point, and has far reaching implications for both its characters and viewers: it discretely suggests the preponderance of doubt that certain people struggle with when dealing with desperately proving the truth to a terrible accusation against another, but it also pertains to the more ethereal doubts that we all experience during times of profound social and political uncertainty in the world.  It’s hard for people to have absolute certainty in a world when moral uncertainty is the norm. 

The film’s trailer showcases that DOUBT is about a fiercely determined nun that attempts – come hell or high water – to prove to all around her that her Church’s well-respected priest is a child seducer and molester.  Yet, Shanley’s film goes well beyond its TV-movie-of-the week facade; on basic levels, it deals with the issues of pedophilia in the priesthood, to be sure, but the film also is a much more nuanced in looking at so many other subtle themes that manage to creep in: the social environment and norms of a rigidly run Catholic school in the 1960’s, the sexual politics and blatant sexism that occurred in the Catholic Church, and how societal catastrophes of the times had a near paralyzing affect of people.  With calamities like Vietnam, JFK’s killing, and civil discord on the home front, DOUBT quietly suggests how the overall historical period undermined peoples’ faith in general.  In large part, DOUBT delicately maneuvers around its plot of a vile allegation against a priest and becomes something more engrossing and transfixing.  In a way, it becomes a meditation on human motives and emotional fragility and, more crucially, is cautionary for the manner it shows how being absolutely unwavering in your own convictions of righteousness can be a very dangerous force. 

Perhaps the finest compliment to bestow upon Shanley’s work here is that he manages to do everything mentioned all while allowing DOUBT to be a keenly intricate and frequently unnerving study of its flawed personas.  The film is an actor’s paradise in the way it allows us to be drawn to securely in for its 104 minutes and forces us to pay strict attention to every minute detail of the individual performances.  The film is so assuredly lean on this level: no emotion is phoned in or manufactured, no line of dialogue is superfluous or unnecessary, and certainly no moment in the film feels false.  To a large extent, the inner suspense and intrigue of the film is not so much in its whodunit storyline, but more with how it shows the close-quartered verbal cat and mouse games its characters engage in throughout.  Almost all of the people that populate the film are intensely vigilant with one another at one point or another, which is why DOUBT emerges as a supremely interpretive film: Refreshingly, black and white questions are asked with simple answers rarely being provided.  The direct outcome of the film is curiously open to speculation, and Shanley is smart enough not to specifically leave us with a resounding sensation that everything has been settled on a satisfactory level.  The painfully unsettling feeling of not knowing the true nature of one character in DOUBT is what ultimate makes the film rise above routine period drama and to that of an enigmatic examination of faith in general. 

Rarely has a film’s setting and time been so instrumental in its story and themes.  Yes, attacks against the Catholic priesthood are commonplace today, but back in 1964 sex abuse scandals were largely ignored.  The 60’s – as a time ripe for civil rights change – are also crucial for helping to typify the relationships between men and women in the Church (where men – priest and pastors – ruled supreme and believed that women – nuns – should know their obedient place under them).  This thematic tandem allows for our innate investment in the underlining story: It's 1964 in the Bronx and we are introduced to a Catholic School and the Father the presides over it, Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  The beginning of the film opens quietly with a sermon he gives to the masses on the nature of doubt (highly fitting) and how it – much like faith – can be a source of unifying people together towards the common good.  Later that evening the school’s vindictively strict head nun and principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) discusses the sermon with her fellow nuns, one that includes a young and sometimes naïve newcomer, Sister James (Amy Adams).  Aloysius finds the Father’s choice of topics compelling, if not a bit odd.  She asks her fellow nuns for their interpretation of the meaning of the sermon and then concludes that they may be more than meets the eye when it comes to his words.  More specifically, she asks he colleagues to keep a close eye on Father Flynn for any hint of possible wrongdoing. 

Perhaps there is more to Sister Aloysius suspicions than she lets on to her peers.  She becomes utterly infatuated with the notion of catching the outwardly noble and decent minded Father in an act of insubordination.  Why?  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that she rules her students with a cool and ruthlessly unemotional restraint more akin to a prison warden, which is something that the calm and more approachable Father does not like.  The sister is a fierce creature of habit and norms, and seeing the Father’s almost loose and easygoing charm that he exhibits with students is highly off-putting to her.  She simply does not like this man and despises his progressive views, his liberal minded sermons, and his relative closeness with the monsignor (something she never really has with her fellow nuns, as Shanely brilliantly shows in two dinner scenes juxtaposed between one another), and she really does not like the fact that the priest thinks that her tactics and methods are right out of the Dark Ages.  Maybe Flynn has a point: Sister Aloysius’ effortless manner of elicited innate fear in her students has become legendary in the school.  Only newcomer Sister James is offered up as the antithesis of Aloysius’ mean-spirited fear-mongering, as she is a kind and gentle soul that believes she can get better results making kids think that she cares for them.

Sister James’ educational philosophy soon takes a hit during one day when she notices that the school’s painfully shy, introverted, and friendless African American student and altar boy, Donald (Joseph Foster II) has returned to her class from the Father’s office in a rather distressed state.  Worst of all, she believes that she smells alcohol on the boy’s breath.  Her doubts about Father Flynn’s relationship for the troubled youth takes a real turn for the worse when she then catches Flynn placing the boy’s undershirt back in his locker.  She timidly approaches Sister Aloysius, but she is so unreservedly sickened by the thought of Flynn being a man of impropriety that she would stop at nothing to prove his innocence.  This makes Aloysius cringe.  James rather ineffectually states, “I don’t believe that Flynn did anything wrong,” to which the incredulous Aloysius responds, “You just want things resolved so you can have simplicity back.” 

The ingenious aspect of DOUBT is how well it maintains the mystery of whether or not Flynn did anything wrong.  As the film progresses – and as Aloysius’ insistence on Flynn’s guilt grows – we are presented with both damning, but circumstantial, evidence leaning towards Flynn’s guilt.  Likewise, we are also quite respectively guided towards the fact that Flynn perhaps did nothing wrong other than to befriend a lowly student that had no friends in the world.  This all builds up to a crescendo in the film’s finest scene and you will have to look hard to find a better written and acted scene all year.  During this moment Aloysius faces off against Flynn and reveals all of her problems that she’s had with the man during her times at the Church.  The dialogue between the two is crisp, volatile, but remarkably democratic and allows our understanding of both of their respective positions.  “You haven’t the slightest proof,” Flynn yells at her, but she responds, “But I have my certainty!  And armed with that, I will go to your last parish, and the one before that if necessary.”  This enrages Flynn even more, and as he further tries to establish his innocence, he begins to use the gender politics of the time and Church to his advantage. “You have no right to act on your own! You have taken vows, obedience being one! You answer to us! You have no right to step outside the church," he bellows, whereas Aloysius bravely stands her ground and replies, “I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me!  Aloysius is so steadfastly convinced of Flynn’s guilt that she is willing to part ways with the Catholic Church itself to see this man excommunicated.  Since this is a woman of fire and angry brimstone, Flynn begins to realize that he is on the defensive. 

The scene shows how two of the finest and most respected actors of their generations feed off of one another so precisely and with such poise, determination, and tactful timing.  Lazy critics have complained that Meryl Streep’s work here as the stern and verbally cruel head nun is a camera-mugging caricature, but if you look closely this is a performance where every glance, physical gesture, and choice and tone of words are modulated to careful precision.  This is a character that easily invites outward hostility from viewers, but it’s a true testament to Streep’s incredible range as an actress to get into the mindset of this woman and make us empathize with her (yes, she is a cast iron bitch in black garb with steely eyes and a constant frown, but this is also a woman with a complicated history that feels suffocated by how men in her line of work all but subjugate her).  Her somewhat diminutive position under Flynn and men in general in the Church is no excuse for her intense hatred of Flynn, but it gives us a window into her emotional state, not to mention that it allows us to more fully grasp what it means for a woman of her time to truly stand up to a male superior and seek the truth without going through proper channels.  Streep is as raw and convincing as she’s ever been in DOUBT; this is one of her most outstanding and challenging roles. 

The other supporting performances are equally astounding.  Hoffman has arguably the most difficult part in the film portraying a man that may or may not be guilty of an unforgivably crime, but the amazing thing about his choices with Flynn is that he never oversells a scene to overtly tip our suspicions over to one side.  Like Streep’s nun, he is a man so driven and forthright that it becomes difficult to believe that he’s anything but innocent.  Amy Adams also has a very tricky part as Sister James that has to journey from being a somewhat impressionable and hopelessly green nun to one that begins to share Aloysius’s doubts, even when the comfort of thinking Flynn is innocent has such an overpower aura over her.  And then there is an totally heart-wrenching and poignantly soulful performance by Viola Davies as the African boy’s mother, that brings another added layer of emotional complexity and moral uncertainty to DOUBT in her brief – but utterly unforgettable – scene where  Aloysius confronts her with her suspicions of Flynn’s wrongdoing.  Her response is both shocking and incredibly moving: Much like Aloysius, she is a woman imprisoned by gender inequities of the time, but her race also is an added barrier to ensuring her son’s success.  Davies so fully inhibits this disturbed and distressed woman with such a touching and sad sincerity that the Academy should not overlook despite the briefness of it.   

Shanley is no stranger to praise both on stage and in front of a film camera (on top of the Pulitzer, he won an Oscar for his 1987 screenplay for MOONSTRUCK) and his meticulously clever, frequently moving, and psychological and thematically complex DOUBT will most assuredly garner – and deserve – serious Oscar consideration.  It goes out of its way to show that all of the glossy pyrotechnics and flash-bang CGI artifice is nothing when compared to riveting and compelling characters, ferociously committed and rooted performances, and a fiendishly smart and savvy script that has the foresight to let viewers draw their own conclusions instead of having them slavishly spelt out to them.  Lazy films, in my mind, offer quick and cathartic relief, much like easily digestible feel-good food.  DOUBT has the opposite and more intrinsically fascinating reaction:  It forces us to look within ourselves, challenge own inherent uncertainties and doubts, and allows us to make our own connections and conclusions.  The sheer brilliance of the film is that there are two distinct possibilities to entertain in the story and both have good evidence to support each other.  Films are rarely so sly, yet methodical, in approach, and DOUBT will unconditionally leave viewers talking about its debate-fuelling story weeks after seeing it.  

The most masterfully executed films, after all, are the ones that stay with us.  Shanley’s film will not be leaving me anytime soon.

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