Doubt: A Godsend for Multiplexes
“When you are lost, you are not alone.” – Father Flynn at the beginning of Doubt
In a day and age where films are content to wrap up everything in a neat little bow, here comes Doubt, a film that dares you to wonder, debate, and argue about multiple topics by the time the credits roll. Based on his own Pulitzer Prize winning play about a Catholic priest scandal in the making, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt seems like shameless Oscar bait, and the direction does veer towards heavyhanded at times. However, the play isn’t even about Catholic priest scandals, and is far more interested in questions about humanity than questions about the guilt of any given character involved.
The first African-American child at a Catholic School, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster, who’s a dead ringer for Los Angeles Laker Andrew Bynum) is taken under the wing of the benevolent Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Flynn looks after the boy, ensures no one fights with him, and they grow close… perhaps too close, in the eyes of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal of the church. Sister James (Amy Adams) sees something that makes her worry about the relationship of the boy and the priest, but she has no evidence. Still, the doubts of a dewy-eyed optimist are all Sister Aloysius needs—and since the Catholic church is run by a society of men, she believes it is her responsibility to bring him to justice. Flynn is outraged, since, well, there’s absolutely no proof, and his alibis more than check out. Yet Sister Aloysius does not have a doubt in the world that Flynn is guilty.
The play and the film are, if you couldn’t guess already, about doubts. Who has them, who acts on them, who lives with them—these determine the happiness of the characters. The end of the film may be too maddeningly ambiguous to those who want resolution to whether Flynn was inappropriate with the child—Shanley couldn’t care less, and neither could I by the end. I was too absorbed in the haunting final words. There is also a scene with Donald’s mother, played beautifully by Viola Davis, which is likely to upset some folks who are too focused on the molestation plotline… but in the end, Mrs. Miller’s response shows that she is the only one actively looking out for the best interest of the child, albeit in an unorthodox manner.
To those who believe Meryl Streep is over-the-top in this role, well, you’ve never met a nun before. Shanley, who laces Catholicism through his plays the way Scorsese laces it through his films, knows nuns, and creates a whopper for the nun mythology books in Sister Aloysius. She confessed that she is damned and willing to go to hell in order to do what is necessary to expose the truth (in her mind) about Father Flynn. Streep’s acting tics may show through here and there, but she is still such a joy to watch, and has been the best American actress alive for the last, oh, twenty-five years… who in the country could possibly hope to compete? It’s nice to see Philip Seymour Hoffman in a role that seems to fit his trademark self-loathing jerk when reading the character description, but he gives the man warmth and compassion. Even at the end, his handling of the way the situation plays out is shockingly delicate, and we find ourselves wondering… could a possible child molester be this nice?
Shanley’s build in the scenes in tremendous. We get an early scene with Adams and Streep, then Amy Adams and Hoffman… then he puts the three in the same room for the confrontation. We then see Adams and Steep again, and Adams and Hoffman again, weighing in on the controversy. We know what must be coming— the big Streep/Hoffman showdown. It does not disappoint. Amy Adams has the most thankless of the major roles, but she manages to keep it from teetering over into the realm of the one-note. Surprisingly, perhaps even more than the Streep/Hoffman showdown, the scene with Viola Davis lingers in my mind. Not just because of the tears—this is the best mucus in a scene since The Blair Witch Project— but because watching this woman hold her own against Streep and not even come close to flinching is tremendous to watch.
That’s the thing about this play— it sounds so dreary. Most of Shanley’s plays sound dreary in description, but he keeps them injected with loads of humor, and the words are so much fun to chew into that you can tell the actors have a great time, which helps us have fun even in the dramatic scenes. Plus, he is ambitious with the subjects covered in the script—I haven’t even begun to discuss closeted homosexuality or sexual politics in the Catholic church. Shanley also ably avoids the pitfall of making the film stagey—it’s beautifully shot by Roger Deakins (the Supreme Ruler of Cinematography), and fits well from the stage into the wide expanses of the various church rooms and chapels. Finally, the ambiguity is in no way forced, and under no circumstances is it a cop-out. This film was invariably lead to discussion. Wouldn’t it be great if people talked about films in a serious way more often?
P.S. If you want to have some great ammunition for the debates to follow, pay close attention to Father Flynn’s sermons and parables—the play isn’t called “Doubt: A Parable” for nothing. Therein lies the key to all interpreting. Go wild. Talk about it for hours.