Hot buttons! Catholic priest perhaps sexually abuses a 12-year-old boy! Catholic Church must face up to modernity! Vatican II is lurking about! Feminism! 1960s! Stern unquestionable dogma vs. friendly welcome of change! Maybe even a metaphor for the modern battle of liberals vs. conservatives! And even a little moral ambiguity! Now just cast a few really good actors, and you’ve got yourself a film poised to win awards!


            Actually, I’m just kidding my own cynicism; I don’t really feel that ironically detached from the earnest efforts of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt.” Indeed, “Doubt” is quite a good film which earnestly tackles the concepts above. The performances from the four central actors are all first-rate, and the coda is satisfyingly unresolved. It’s just that, when looked at in a certain light, this is the kind of film that people like to refer to as “Oscar bait.” i.e. More concerned with looking like a good film than with actually being a good film. I have to admit that I was unfortunately preoccupied with such thought through a lot of “Doubt.”


            But luckily, Meryl Streep saved the day. Her and Philip Seymour Hoffman. And Amy Adams. And even Viola Davis in a small but crucial role. By the end of “Doubt,” my doubts had been assuaged. Mostly because of the scenes with Davis, but more on that in a second.


            Brief rundown: It’s 1964, and Fr. Brendan Flynn (Hoffman) is a new kind of priest who has opened up his congregation to all. He is a new-fangled hugs ‘n’ love kind of priest who openly supports Vatican II and a more casual version of the previously fire ‘n’ brimstone version of the Catholic Church. He is also the headmaster of a Catholic school for middle-schoolers. Sister Aloysius (Streep) is the principal of this school, and she is very much of the old guard. She doesn’t hit anyone with a ruler in this film, but she may as well. When the wide-eyed and naïve Sister James (Adams) discovers that Fr. Flynn has been paying extra-close attention to the school’s lone negro student (Joseph Foster II), she brings it to Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius has no trouble accusing Fr. Flynn without evidence, and even threatening his job and even promising damnation. She doesn’t need evidence, you see; she has her certainty. Why does she have it in for Fr. Flynn? There’s just… something about him.




            “Doubt” is oddly paced, and Shanley (whose only other directing credit was 1990’s “Joe vs. The Volcano”) directs every scene with the same amount of tension and gravitas. This may be an engaging approach at the outset, but it also means that the film’s climax has a distressingly flat tone that doesn’t set it apart from any other scene in the film. When the grand confrontation comes between Aloysius and Flynn, Shanley cuts casually back and forth between the two of them, separating the characters when they should be uncomfortably close. I even began to suspect that the two actors were filmed at different times, which always makes for an awkward scene.


            The real moral center of the film belongs to Davis and her scene about halfway through. This was also the scene that really tied the film together for me. Whereas Sister Aloysius is determined to discredit and stop a man who is allegedly a villain, Viola Davis, as the alleged victim’s mother, brings her back down to earth with some simple utilitarian observations. She essentially cares more about her son than she does for any crimes he may or may not have been involved with.


            Despite the over-even tone and the hot-button-pushing propensity of the screenplay, Streep and Hoffman give their all. And even when those two don’t give their all, they are a marvel to behold. Adams may often play similar roles (her large blue eyes make her ideal as an innocent), but she is a capable actress who elevates “Doubt” that much more. I guess I can recommend it.


            N.B. While “Doubt” discusses sexual abuse, I don’t think the word “sex” was used once. I recall “inappropriate,” and a lot of inferring, but nothing is explicit. Indeed, the film is rated PG-13. It’s o.k. to take the kids.

Film review by: Witney Seibold


Published in: on January 17, 2009 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment  

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