Thursday, May 3, 2012
Let me step aside for a moment and discuss the performances. At first I thought Meryl Streep logged a better-than-usual performance, but on subsequent viewings, I realized all the usual ticks and grimaces that she passes off as “acting” are still there. I’m a big Phillip Seymour Hoffman fan, and he does not disappoint here, being very convincing as an affable and progressive Catholic priest. Amy Adams steals every scene she is in, and even in a habit she remains cute as a button. Viola Davis received a lot of praise for her bit role in this film. Frankly, I don’t see it, which isn’t to say she isn’t a good actress; she just doesn’t have much material in this film. There is also a smattering of precocious youngsters in the film, some of whom may be worth keeping an eye on.
The question everyone invariably walks away from the film with is, “Did he do it or didn’t he?” referring to the central question of the film, whether Father Flynn (Hoffman) molested an altar boy. I personally think the script leans toward his innocence, but it is left purposefully unresolved. However, that’s not the point. The film was adapted by the author from his stage play, Doubt: a Parable. He should have kept the subtitle for the film because that clues us in that this story is about more than the action portrayed. It also tells us that the answers to the questions raised are not meant to be simple, let alone answered in a simple up or down fashion.
So what is this film about? The title gives it away, as do numerous conversations throughout: doubt. “What do you do when you’re not sure?” Father Flynn asks in his opening sermon which he goes on to conclude by declaring, “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.” But Sister Aloysius (Streep) is not prone to doubts, and takes Flynn’s sermon as a cause for suspicion. Thus, she directs Sister James (Adams) to keep an eye on Flynn and report anything unusual. It so happens that Father Flynn has taken Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), an altar boy and the school’s first black student, under his wing. When Flynn summons the boy for a private meeting, Sister James dutifully reports this and Sister Aloysius, certain of the implication, begins ruthlessly to pursue Flynn to force him to resign.
And where does doubt come in? Clearly leaving the primary plot point unresolved makes little room for certainty, but there is more. Of the three main characters, Flynn, Aloysius, and James, only the last moves from doubt to certainty in the course of the film. That leaves the other characters to necessarily drift in the other direction. In the case of Flynn, we see his confidence eroded piece by piece under weathering attack. Aloysius’ shift is much more abrupt, coming in the form of an emotional breakdown in the final scene. In the wake of the havoc, it becomes clear that Sister Aloysius’ undue certainty is mainly to blame. But even if innocent, how much blame can Father Flynn assume for raising doubts about himself? And what of Flynn’s assertion at the outset? Could a bond of doubt really have stemmed this awful tide?
Upon watching and rewatching this film, I am ever more impressed. In spite of Streep’s lackluster performance, Sister Aloysius has taken over in my mind as one of cinema’s arch villains. This is because she is utterly convinced of her (false) righteousness. No evidence against and certainly no lack of evidence in favor of her prejudicial beliefs will sway her from them. Indeed, she takes these things as proof of her assumptions and the conspiracy she imagines layered around them. In this, she is utterly believable and utterly terrifying.
Where this film really stands apart is in the dialogue. Miscommunication drives many stories, and this is definitely no exception. But where many films make something ridiculous of this very real phenomenon, Doubt finds plausible reasons for characters to withhold from each other, to not listen, or to outright deny what they hear. It’s done so well, in fact, it causes to viewer to muse mid-movie, “Do I ever do that?” coupled with the hasty follow-up, “I sure hope not.”
There is, however, one area where the film must be criticized. And that is in trying to stuff too many social issues into a single film. The first three issues tackled are central to the story, priestly abuse, race, and hierarchy and gender within in the Catholic Church. These are fine. There is also a theme that runs through regarding cultural changes as the film is set in the early 1960s. This doesn’t really interfere too much, though it hardly contributes, either. It really isn’t until Donald’s mother (Davis) has her monologue that we are overwhelmed with domestic abuse, institutional racism, and homosexuality, all in a single blow. It stands out as a real shoehorning of additional topics and, on first viewing, had me crying “foul!”
On a final note, this is a film that I know I will find myself watching again and again. The pacing is excellent; 104 minutes breeze by. The church and school are real places; one can almost smell the wax and varnish and, despite the grave subject matter, one finds a desire for a return visit. And, of course, the story is marvelously layered with more details that can be caught in a single pass. Nothing aside from what has already been mentioned is superfluous, right down to the metaphor of Father Flynn’s fingernails. But I won’t say any more.