Tuesday, April 14, 2009


Director: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis

Running Time: 104 min.

Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

As a kid, I remember the public library in town always stocked movies, some classics, that appealed primarily to the "older" crowd. Doubt wouldn't be that out of place among them. It's dry Oscar bait that at times feels more like a homework assignment than a fully realized cinematic experience. Even the title is somewhat of a misnomer. It could very easily be changed to Here Say, Rumor or Gossip. We start in a position of knowing nothing and finish in a position of knowing...nothing. Not a deal killer by any means, but when there isn't anything other than the performances to support that, it can become an issue.

In interviews writer/director John Patrick Shanley has stated that the movie really begins after the final credits roll at which point you can discuss and debate. Discuss what? I hope he's not referring to whether this priest molested a student because there's no indication at all that he did. We're given no evidence, nothing to go on, so the film essentially becomes one giant true or false question. Here's a sample of a discussion I had with someone after the film:

Him: "So, think he did it?"

Me: "No."

That's about the extent of it. Since the film doesn't present any evidence or a compelling argument in either direction something is lost and the performances have to make up for it, which they handily do. The story becomes about feelings and motivations rather than guilt or innocence. There isn't much to weigh here. Still, it's worth contrasting this with Ron Howard's far superior Frost/Nixon, this past year's other big Oscar-ready stage adaptation. There, Howard opened opened up the story visually and used an effective narrative framing device that added tension and history. It felt like an epic showdown and a prize fight between two heavyweights. Shanley seems to have just grabbed a camera and shot the Tony Award winning play, which just so happens to be his own.

In way Doubt reminds me more of Rachel Getting Married or The Wrestler, in that it's primarily a performance showcase except for the fact those two films dug deeper and transcended that, giving you substantially more to think about when they ended. This is a solid, if slightly transparent effort completely supported by the caliber of the acting, which is downright brilliant across the board. For that it has more in common with Milk, though it doesn't carry nearly the same level of expectation and subsequent disappointment. At least here you get to make up your own mind, even if there isn't a whole lot to consider.

It's the fall of 1964 at St. Nicholas Church School in the Bronx where the principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) rules with an iron fist, treating misbehaving students like inmates in a penitentary and inspiring fear everywhere she goes. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) operates in stark contrast, taking a friendlier approach to the kids and acting as an encouraging mentor. Nearly two years after the assassination of President Kennedy the world is changing, kids are changing and Flynn believes Aloysius' method of discipline is becoming irrelevant.

Caught in the middle of their philosophical struggle is the young, naive Sister James (Amy Adams) who has reason (albeit very little) to suspect Flynn may be carrying on an "inappropriate relationship" with Donald Muller (Joseph Foster) the only African-American student in the school. She takes her suspicions to Aloysius who despite having no evidence, stills pursues the issue, even involving the boy's mother (Viola Davis). Aloysius will stop at nothing in her quest to wrangle a confession out of Flynn and prevent him from teaching at her school ever again, making us wonder whether she really is out to protect the welfare of these children or is more interested in settling a personal vendetta.

The worst way to approach this film is as a moral mystery. What it is instead is a clash of values and cultures brought about by allegations that don't carry much wait outside of Aloysius' belief in her heart that they're true. And her belief could be clouded by a pre-conceived bias and intolerance toward the man accused of the crime. Or maybe it isn't. That notion is even scarier. There's the possibility that this mild-mannered teacher who by outward appearances seems to be a great mentoring figure to kids could have actually done this. Who among us hasn't ever just gone on a gut feeling and nothing more? The performances rather than Shanley's script, give the dilemma nuance and depth. With less talented actors you could easily envision this coming across as three talking heads debating a non-existent issue.

Streep and Hoffman draw you in with their lived in portrayals of two people with greatly differing views of intolerance, which is what the script purports to be about. Her Sister Aloysius starts the film as an ice cold disciplinarian and she ends the film as that as well so Streep instead makes our view of her evolve. We still dislike her by the final credits, but at least we can understand where she's coming from even though her guard never really comes down. She's set in her ways and grasping as hard as she can to what she believes is best for her students, ignorant to the fact that times have changed and left her behind. That's never clearer than in the sensational, some what bizarre scene Streep shares with Viola Davis, who plays the boy's mother.

Davis joins the company of Judi Dench, William Hurt and Ruby Dee in earning an Oscar nomination for only a precious few minutes worth of screen time. It's well deserved and in a way her character speaks for audience in wondering whether Aloysius has thought through what these allegations could do not to Flynn, but the boy. Mrs. Muller just wants to get her son through the school year in one piece and the absolutely horrifying idea is thrown out there that being molested may not even be his worst problem in life.

There's a whole world out there that Aloysius hasn't even considered or maybe just can't. Davis' character throws that in her face and the result is the only scene in the film that will have you talking afterward. It's a stretch and a complicated part to pull off believably (especially in so short a time span) but Davis does, holding her own with an acting legend in the process. Hoffman gives a benevolent vibe to Flynn that makes you want to root for him, but something seems off. A cloud of suspicion hangs over him, enough for you to consider that he could have done this despite the lack of proof. Amy Adams plays the quiet wallflower but effectively takes the character to the next level as the situation unfolds, even as her cheery, optimistic demeanor wears on you after a while

I was surprised to read in the credits that the film was shot by the great Roger Deakins and scored by composer Howard Shore because this has to rank among the least memorable offerings for both. I can't recall a shot that stayed with me or whether there was even any music at all. This is a performance piece and a front row ticket to watch some of our most talented actors verbally spar with one another. The film will likely hit hardest for those who attended Catholic school in their youth. Everyone I've talked to who has told me that they knew a Sister Aloysius, a Sister James, or a Father Flynn, if not all three. It was the real Sister James who inspired Shanley to write the play and its her objective but optimistic stance audiences will relate to best.

I admired the film but would never see it again. Nor would I feel compelled to discuss it since we know no more at the end than the beginning. Not even a little more. While it's is a superbly acted and at least somewhat emotionally involving picture I can't help but think that it helps explain why many dread Oscar season. Impressively crafted, but draining, Doubt is worthy of a couple of acting nominations, a hearty golf clap, and little else.

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