Hoffman and Streep wow us again without a doubt

Directed by John Patrick Shanley. December 2008, USA. Rated PG-13: 104 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 12/30/2008)

John Patrick Shanley’s last directorial credit as a filmmaker dates all the way back to Joe Versus the Volcano (1990). But don’t let that fool you—Doubt shows no signs of Volcano’s “magnificent goofiness” (Roger Ebert’s words); this case study of how the 1960s wave of change affected the Catholic Church is dead serious. Based on Shanley’s Tony-and-Pulitzer-winning play, the film stars Philip Seymour Hoffman as the progressive Priest Flynn and Meryl Streep as the martinet nun and Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius.

The two butt heads at every corner: Aloysius sips a Spartan glass of sugarless tea; Flynn prefers three cubes and wolfs down cupfuls in quick succession. Aloysius condemns ballpoint pens for making students lazy writers; Flynn has no shame in using them. While Aloysius demands blind trust and obedience in one’s superiors, Flynn boldly preaches a message of doubt. Flynn’s calls for compassion and understanding mean nothing to Aloysius, who values virtue and purity above all. Though at first we sympathize with Flynn’s quest for change in the church, his character comes into question when we witness his condescension toward women and when Donald Miller (Joseph Foster)—the school’s first African-American student—returns to class from Flynn’s rectory looking frightened and reeking of altar wine. His teacher—the young, innocent Sister James (Amy Adams)—reports her concerns to Sister Aloysius, who seizes the opportunity to plot Priest Flynn’s demise. Certain that Flynn intends to seduce the boy, she threatens to overthrow him by any means possible.

The three-dimensional performances are so memorable and the crescendoing dramatic tension is so palpable that your head may very well spin for hours after leaving the theater as you mentally replay the story. One conversation in particular between Sister Aloysius and Donald Miller’s mother (Viola Davis) tosses yet another layer of complexity to an already dense pile of conflicts.

A technique of Shanley’s to either make or break your experience is the film’s stage performance aesthetic. The abundance of close-ups and actors’ deliberate movements in a contained space make Doubt feel almost like a recorded play instead of a movie. For the most part, Shanley focuses our attention on the characters’ development and interaction instead of framing beautiful shots to flaunt the setting. In my opinion, this works, because the relentless attention to dialogue forces us to ask ourselves who—if anyone—is in the right and what secrets they withhold.