Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Joseph Foster
December 3, 2008
“What do you do when you’re not sure?”
Nothing is reassuring about donning a priest collar. The fact that a priest goes out every day to try and carry out God’s word isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. There will always be skeptics, temptations, and people who will doubt the very well being of a priest’s teachings. Instead of a code of honor, the tiny white collar adorned a top all black attire invites more sin than righteousness. And most of the time the dark always seems to loom above the light.
If ever a place that was supposed to be uncorrupted by anomie, it would have to be a catholic school. Throughout the film there’s an unnerving anger confined in the washed out corridors of St. Nicholas School in 1964. Life has just been pretty much banished. Only sign of it comes from Father Flynn and his ideas of bringing the school out of the dark ages and into a new era of celebration and change. Father Flynn’s, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman with such sureness, job isn’t only to spread the word of God to his congregation but to guide the church through Sister Aloysius’ (Meryl Streep) strict reign. Transmitting any good deeds at the school is viewed as a mortal sin; decency isn’t acknowledgeable. Father Flynn helps an only black child (Joseph Foster) who is continuously singled out or ignored and has hops of becoming a priest. The Bible says “let the children come to Me,” but St. Nicholas School says otherwise and so does the child’s mother played by Viola Davis who in a single scene creates a zinger out of it.
When Sister Aloysius gets word from Sister James (Amy Adams), a soul that can’t function outside of simplicity, that Father Flynn may have had a sexual encounter with the school’s only black student in the rectory, Sister Aloysius assigns herself a cathartic that she will exploit Father Flynn. Streep’s Aloysius may be the most ruthless and most truthful character this year in movies and that will pay off as she’ll receive her 15th Oscar nomination. Her performance is an act of alienation as she’s willing to rid the school of scum and the malign that are lurking.
And this is how the movie achieves such a rhythmic beat. The moment Father Flynn becomes convicted of getting too close with a student there’s a new fulfillment the film then takes on. It slowly becomes a guessing game with the audience no matter how obscure the accusation might be; did Father Flynn really do that?
Doubt suppresses violent scenes that might have leaked through a lesser film. Doubt finds true terror of violence within the hot-tempered dialogue. If words could ever cripple a human being they practically do just that here. Hoffman and Streep exchange in a heated argument of misunderstanding in her office about moral convictions that put human souls in harms way. It’s one of the best-acted scenes of the year where Hoffman, in another great performance, matches both the humbleness and explosion that Streep portrays.
Swinging from absurdity (Joe Versus the Volcano 1990) to pathos with his newest film, writer and director by John Patrick Shanley does a remarkable feat with Doubt. He magically turns this touchy subject into a strikingly entertaining piece of cinema that occasionally prolongs certain predicaments. The movie allows the audience to explore what the excess of mainstream cinema doesn’t allow: an inside view of what makes the human soul tick. As Shanley makes use of this he builds each character so thoroughly to the point that we can see their insides. So far, no movie this year has a better cast of characters that are written so perfectly and acted so uniformly great.
The three characters employed by the Church each have unique principles that allow their characters to clash with one another. Each is so true to their principles that they will go down burning trying to keep them secure. None of them can see the world any other way when their livelihood becomes threatened. When that happens they become very vulnerable. The script written by Shanley, who also did a stage version of the movie, shapes his characters so perfectly that the believability of each character falling victim to their vulnerability is immense. Whether it’s Father Flynn trying to bring a change to the school, or Sister Aloysius fending off change to keep intact her fierce role as principal, or Sister James as a gullible sheep who doesn’t like confrontation especially when she brings it on, the actors, Hoffman, Streep, and Adams make it all possible.
Shanley is performing a juggling act here. The first half of Doubt is a tedious and insightful study of how a Catholic school works and who makes it work. The film’s opening shows a neighborhood going to church in a meticulous manner and a priest going through his preparation. This is a class act example of what Shanley has in store for the rest of the movie; a startling portrait about the fear of losing touch with simplicity. Scenes cut deepest when Father Flynn delivers to full congregation sermons that have a personal vendetta attached to them.
The second half of the film is where emotions pick up and humanity begins to wither away. It deals with the psychological disorder throughout the confined school. The renowned cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country) elevates the morbid and ominous tone the film nurtures to a more resounding imitation of Hell. There’s a “panic” sense to his camera as shots usually have the camera tilted. Music from Howard Shore complements Deakins’ camerawork making the environment even more illusive of what the Catholic Church usually practices.