June 2024

Doubt (2008)

doubtDIRECTOR: John Patrick Shanley

CAST: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis


Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play, deals with various issues—the debate over whether the Catholic Church should stand firm to old-school doctrine or evolve with the times, the ways in which those too wrapped up in their own righteousness lose sight of compassion, more tangential questions of crisis of faith and (perhaps) sexuality—-but primarily it’s a battle between doubt and certainty, both as an external conflict between characters and within individual characters’ hearts.  Its outwardly simple, straightforward premise steeps itself in ambiguity and leads us into a moral quagmire from which it never lets us emerge.  Those who dislike ambiguity and expect a film to offer a clear-cut resolution with clear answers will not be satisfied.  Different viewers will come to different interpretations, and Doubt is the kind of film (or play) that can inspire heated debates after the end credits have rolled or the curtain has fallen.

The set-up is simple and straightforward, even if the way it unfolds is anything but.  It is 1964 at a Catholic school in the Bronx, with Christmas approaching.  The stern principal and head nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), sees sin and wrongdoing everywhere, perhaps even in the person of the jovial priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom she suspects of forming an inappropriate attachment to Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the school’s first African-American student.  One day, young idealistic newcomer Sister James (Amy Adams) tentatively approaches Aloysius with her suspicions.  The circumstantial “evidence” is flimsy at best, but Aloysius is unshakably convinced of Flynn’s guilt and proceeds accordingly, confronting him in her office (where he indignantly denies her accusations), and later even involving Donald’s mother (Viola Davis).  Is the self-righteous Aloysius scurrilously attacking an innocent man, or is Flynn’s friendly exterior hiding something unsavory?  Like the conflicted Sister James, who becomes torn between the two and isn’t sure whom or what to believe, the audience must arrive at a conclusion through their own interpretations, but Doubt lives up to its name and provides no clear answers.

Doubt starts out low-key and innocuous, establishing the characters and the setting, and then slowly introduces the central mystery and ratchets up the tension.  The boy is summoned to the rectory for a mysterious private meeting with Father Flynn.  He returns behaving sullen and with alcohol on his breath.  Initially, Flynn refuses Aloysius’ demands for an explanation, but eventually reveals—or at least claims—that the boy’s sullenness stems from abuse by his father (the abuse is corroborated by Donald’s mother).  Donald, the priest claims, was caught drinking altar wine, a transgression which would have led to him being kicked out of the altar boys.  The softhearted Flynn took pity on the troubled boy and covered for him, until Aloysius doggedly drags the truth out of him.  Sister James believes the explanation.  Sister Aloysius sees it as cover for something more sinister.  Whether the truth lies with Flynn’s story, Aloysius’ belief, or somewhere in between, the audience is forced to decide for themselves.

Doubt is a showcase for its actors and its thought-provoking central quandary.  Like the play it is adapted from, it relies on few sets—the moments where it ventures beyond the insular walls of St. Nicholas are few and far between—and relies heavily on acting and dialogue.  As a drama, apart from a couple intense confrontations, it’s low-key, and nothing that could be called “exciting” really happens (unless you get a thrill from watching Oscar-winning thespians like Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman yell at each other, in which case the movie will definitely throw you a juicy bone or two).  This is a somber, serious drama for a mature and intelligent audience that doesn’t require everything to be spelled out for them and doesn’t mind a movie that leaves its “answers”—or lack thereof—ambiguous and open to interpretation.  There are several possible scenarios of what really transpired between Father Flynn and Donald Miller, and the movie provides ammunition for each of them.  Another plot complication comes from the fact that the two main characters are ideological opposites (or as much as two devout Catholics can be, anyway).  Father Flynn is an easygoing, mild-mannered, progressive priest with a casual style who wants to usher in a kinder, gentler church and sees the ultra-conservative old-school hardliners like Sister Aloysius as holding it back in the Dark Ages.  His laidback sermons are devoid of fire and brimstone, espouse love and compassion, and admonish judgmental intolerance, and are sometimes less-than-subtly aimed at his nemesis Aloysius.  For her part, Aloysius is a stereotypical pinch-faced, cold-eyed elder nun who stalks the hallways dressed all in black, strikes fear into everyone, sees sin and wrongdoing everywhere, and sees the liberal Father Flynn as a potential corrupting influence even before she comes to suspect him of more extreme flaws.  Is Aloysius’ pre-conceived bias against Flynn making her too quick to believe the worst of him?  Or is his roly-poly joviality hiding something?  It’s alluded to that Aloysius has dealt with a pedophile priest before, at another parish years ago, but has this, as she believes, made her better at sniffing out such behavior, or has it instead made her paranoid and too quick to see it where it does not exist?  Likewise, we eventually learn Flynn has moved from parish to parish with suspicious frequency over the last few years, which Aloysius takes as confirmation of his indiscretions.  But we never learn the specifics or context, leaving the door open for other explanations which Aloysius disregards in her unshakable determination (in fact, it’s not beyond the realm of plausibility that the liberal Flynn has been pushed out of other parishes by other hardline conservatives like Aloysius before, just as ultimately happens to him here, not necessarily through any wrongdoing of his own).

The boy and possible victim at the center of the controversy, Donald Miller, is the only black student at the school, and Shanley’s film makes more overt something which his play only vaguely implied….that Donald is also gay.  Father Flynn’s own passion for pressed flowers, his effeminately long fingernails, and the meticulousness with which he keeps them perfectly clean and groomed, could be read as Shanley dropping hints that Flynn may also be a closeted homosexual.  Is the ambiguous relationship between the priest and the boy merely two people, perhaps both with a secret the church would not accept, finding platonic kinship?  Is Flynn merely trying to be a friend to a lonely, troubled boy who badly needs one, unfairly maligned by misinterpreted circumstantial evidence and a judgmental woman’s paranoia, or is he exactly what Aloysius thinks he is, a manipulative pedophile preying on an isolated boy who presents an easy target ripe for the picking?  The movie’s tension and unease stems not from any conventional “suspense” or danger, but from the way it never allows to be sure how we should feel about several of the characters. The early character establishing scenes cleverly make the jovial Flynn more outwardly sympathetic than the inquisitorial Aloysius, and then spends the rest of the movie sowing doubts about who’s side, if either, we should really be on.  Just as it’s possible Flynn has a darker side than he seems, so too is it worth keeping in mind that, while Aloysius may not be the most likable of individuals, that doesn’t necessarily mean she’s wrong.

doubt2Like the stage play, Doubt is primarily an acting showcase, with all four top-billed cast members—Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis—receiving Oscar nominations for their work here.  Streep’s Sister Aloysius is, for the most part, a less-than-sympathetic figure, a holier-than-thou Bible-thumper who sees Frosty the Snowman as pagan propaganda and is fanatically determined of Flynn’s guilt based on little more than her own gut feeling and some extremely flimsy circumstantial evidence that is ambiguous at best.  But Aloysius is not an evil woman, merely a stern, inflexible, arguably misguided one, and Streep finds her tightly-bottled humanity.  In her own fashion, she believes she is looking out for Donald’s welfare, although, depending on whether her suspicions are correct, she may be inadvertently hurting him more than helping.  Her climactic admission of doubts is moving because it’s the only time in the entire 103 minute runtime that she seems to have a shred of uncertainty about her own righteousness.  She is offset by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who manages the tricky balance of making us want to believe in Flynn’s innocence, yet also leave enough ambiguity that we’re uncomfortably unsure of whether we should be on his side or not.  Just as Aloysius is often less-than-sympathetic, there are also times when Flynn’s secretiveness and halting answers do not fully inspire trust either.  The third member of the lead acting triumvirate is Amy Adams, whose part as the naive, idealistic Sister James is less showy than Streep or Hoffman but in its own way, no less important.  She represents the audience’s entry point into the story; like us, she hears the arguments of both Flynn and Aloysius, and like us, she doesn’t know what to believe.  “Sometimes I wish I could be more like you,” she admits to the unyielding Aloysius in the closing scene.  When asked why, she poignantly admits, “Because I can’t sleep anymore”.  While Aloysius, at least until the climax, enjoys the self-assurance of complete conviction, James is tormented by doubt.  The final Oscar nominee is Viola Davis, who earned her nod in only one lengthy scene as Donald’s mother, who reveals herself as pragmatic to a morally ambiguous extent, reveals key information about the situation, and makes a surprising admission.  Davis’ screentime is a fraction of her three co-stars’, but she makes an impression.

The overall experience of digesting Doubt is both thought-provoking and frustrating.  It is intellectually and emotionally demanding, and provides no concrete answers.  In the end, all the audience and the characters are left with is more uncertainty.  The battle between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn is between doubt and certainty, change and status quo, truth and belief, and guilt and innocence.  And the film leaves us unsure for whom we should be rooting to win.  What we are not left unsure of is the deft writing, powerful performances, and mentally and emotionally stimulating subject matter that can leave viewers in heated debates long after the credits have rolled.

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