Faith is a very tricky thing. Belief without a foundation in fact, or the possibility of proving either, gives religion its raison d’être, and skeptics their fodder for a hundred careful criticisms. Of course, no one takes into consideration the believer’s side of the situation. On the one hand, there’s the certainty of their conviction. They have no question about the existence of a God, the sacrifice of His son for our sins, and the ongoing presence of both in their daily life. Yet there are also moments of disbelief, times when dogma fails to offer up an explanation or rationale. It is this inherent element of conviction that stands at the center of Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize winning play, and oddly enough, it’s also a part of the overall experience for the viewer as well.
When he was accepted into St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx, Principal Sr. Aloysius thought that black student Donald Muller would be a problem. But she thought the issues would be between the boy and some bigoted students. But one day, after meeting up with Fr. Flynn in the rectory, Donald returns to newcomer Sr. James’ class with liquor on his breath. He’s also upset and shaken. Bringing her concerns to Sr. Aloysius, the old nun suspects the worst - that Fr. Flynn has been “inappropriate” with the boy. But there is a clear hierarchy within the Catholic Church, and even though she runs the school, Sr. Aloysius cannot confront the priest directly. When her discussions with the higher up become confrontational and contentious, the Sister seeks the advice of Donald’s hardworking mother. What she discovers puts everything into perspective while casting uncertainty on every element in the story - Donald’s motives, Fr. Flynn’s explanations, and Sr. Aloysius’s pursuit of both.
Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
US theatrical: 12 Dec 2008
Doubt is not the first “meta” motion picture, but it’s a safe bet that it’s the only one that takes its name, it’s internal conflict, and the resolution of both as a literal fact. In his knotty, ambiguous narrative, John Patrick Shanley shuns outright pronouncements for questions left unanswered and plot threads purposefully left hanging. The characters all exhibit the title tendency, though some avoid it until the very last scene and lines of dialogue. And yet Shanley wants to push the interactive envelope further, suggesting the film (like his play) is actually a work in two of three acts. The final segment comes once the credits roll and the audience heads home to discuss. There will be lots of investigation and interpretation about Doubt‘s finale, especially in light of our passive-aggressive predatory view of backdoor religious dealings. But whether or not we convict the individuals at the center of the story is not the key to Doubt‘s dilemma. What it says about us as human beings may be the movie’s most devastating statement.
Molestation and homosexuality are at the center of Shanley’s themes, but per the early ‘60s backdrop, both are held in hush-hush communicative contempt. Sister Aloysius responds to every rejoinder about her accusations with a standard “you know what I’m saying”, and even when another character calls out her own son’s situation, words like “gay” are never spoken. Without spoiling much, the crux of Doubt‘s plotline asks us to figure out why an older man would favor a younger, sensitive black child. There is no mention of sex or orientation, no evidence of wrongdoing except for the telltale odor of alcohol on the child’s breath. Everything is rumor and innuendo, past indiscretions and the appearance of impropriety dropped into a fog of unproven allegations and misunderstood motives. When the movie ends, we have even less clarity than during the stunning confrontations between nun and priest.
If it offers anything clear and apparent, it’s the hardworking grandeur of Streep and Hoffman’s performances. Amy Adams is left out of many of the main arguments, and while missed, it’s a good guess that she’d have a hard time holding her own here. Both of these able Oscar winners bring so much passion, so much anger, so much emotion to their tet-a-tet’s that we wish the entire film was nothing but debates. Shanley’s writing is focused and firm, never giving away too much without flying off onto unimportant tangents. As Fr. Flynn slowly realizes what Sr. Aloysius is suggesting, the look of hurt and hatred in Hoffman’s eyes is unforgettable. Equally, Streep sells us on her old school view of the world. She’s not really as mean as she makes herself out to be. Instead, her hardness comes from a life of loss, and the stone cold strength of her convictions. She knows she is right, and so far, nothing has proven her wrong.
Going back to Shanley’s own suggestion about Doubt being divided into three distinct parts, it’s obvious that sections one and two are the most potent. The beginning of the film takes a while to find its cinematic sea legs. We stumble around among various disconnected events, young boys being bad as their female classmates are read the standard religious riot act about “improper” dress and attitudes toward boys. One guesses we are supposed to see Flynn’s progressive nature and Sr. James discomfort with her order’s discipline based decision making in these sequences. But it’s only when Hoffman handles his character’s amazing sermons that we see any symbolic link to the rest of Doubt‘s designs. Perhaps the incompleteness comes from Shanley’s need to open up the play for the big screen. Maybe he underestimated the power of his last act affronts.
There will be some who see the ending as a massive, mannered cop-out. They will want closure, a consensus as to who or what was the boogie man in the closet (or out, so to speak) and hear someone say something to ease their easily manipulated and Dateline driven mind. Part of the success of Doubt onstage must have come from Shanley’s shadowy avoidance of finality, giving those callous contemporary theatergoers a dose of their own narrow minded medicine. The narrative makes it very clear that Flynn could be a victim here, a would-be non-warlock in a witch hunt, so to speak. Yet nothing within the final fifteen minutes suggests that kind of purity. Indeed, the best thing about Doubt could be the fact that everyone is guilty - either of over reacting, or not reacting at all. And don’t be surprised if you feel equally culpable when all is said and done.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.