John Patrick Shanley’s adaptation of his own award-winning play is a provocative adult drama featuring strong performances from some of our very best working actors. It may not have made it onto my top ten list for the year, but that’s such a personal and subjective thing that it shouldn’t be taken as a knock against the movie. It’s still absolutely worth your time.
Set in 1964 in Brooklyn, “Doubt” tells the story of Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a new parrish priest determined to bring a new warmer identity to the priesthood. He speaks from the heart during his sermons, and he seems to be approachable, easy to talk to. He’s the exact opposite of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the Mother Superior who runs the school adjunct to the church. She’s feared by every single kid and most of the nuns as well, and she takes great pride in that.
When Father Flynn takes a special interest in Donald Miller, the first black student at the school, he catches the attention of Sister James (Amy Adams), one of the younger nuns. She’s not sure what to make of it, and she takes her suspicions to Sister Aloysius. She really doesn’t know what she saw or what she suspects, but right away, Sister Aloysius locks on. She’s immediately sure. And once the machinery of justice is in motion, as far as she’s concerned, Father Flynn doesn’t stand a chance.
There are several ways this film could unfold, and I know what I thought the film was going to be is not at all what Shanley actually made. His film is much sadder, about the loneliness of moral certainty.
You’ve probably read or heard about the work of the amazing Viola Davis, and it’s true. She comes in for one long sequence with Meryl Streep, and she’s devastating. She alters the film… pulls the gravity sideways… and she poses a moral question so complicated that it resonates through everything else that happens. And what makes the scene so great is the way she is the only person who presents as immovable a moral force as Streep. And it obviously shakes Streep deeply. Their work together is the heart of the film.
Hoffman’s performance is pinched, careful, with these occasional bursts of genuine humanity like sun through clouds on a rainy day. Like he can’t keep himself bottled up. But he regrets every instance. He’s hiding in the priesthood, probably from himself as much as anyone else. And no matter what he is, he’s got it on a leash. He’s helping. He’s doing good in his community. He genuinely believes that. But he can’t stand strong when faced with Sister Aloysius. He can’t play the game better than she can, and he knows it. He doubts. And doubting himself the way he does, it’s like a cancer, eating at him.
It’s a simple, austere film, and Shanley suggests period without hammering you over the head with it. This is his childhood, the world where he first started shaping his own moral viewpoint. Although this particular incident didn’t really happen, these types of personality showdowns played out in his life, and he’s writing from a lifetime of observation.
“Doubt” is not a fireworks show. Those expecting some kind of giant battle of wills may be disappointed. Instead, it’s all about power being flexed back and forth, subtle shifts in the tide, and the currents of certainty and doubt that carry us all along. It’s been almost 20 years since Shanley directed his last film, “Joe Versus The Volcano,” but I hope his next one comes much, much sooner.