Sunday, February 15, 2009

#7 - DOUBT

Great writing + great acting=Doubt.

As noted on the poster itself, Doubt is "based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play" of the same name. Written for the screen and directed by John Patrick Shanley (who also penned the original material), Doubt is an ethically complex and ultimately ambiguous story.

Set during the mid-1960s in a Bronx Catholic church and school, the narrative tracks the criss-crossing paths of two authority figures within the respective institutions. Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a young, forward-minded priest at the parish. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is an old-school nun who serves as the school's principal. By way of contrasting visual cues and via oral exchanges, it is made clear early on in the film that Flynn and Aloysius have different ideas of how representatives of the Church ought to behave and how the church and school ought to be viewed by its congregation and students. Aloysius' disapproval of Flynn's is apparent if initially unspoken.

The quiet friction between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius quickly escalates to the point of confrontation when Aloysius learns from Sister James, a young, green teacher at the school, that Flynn may or may not have engaged in sexual conduct with Donald Miller, the only black student at the school. Without making specific accusations, Aloysius solicits information from Flynn regarding his relationship with the boy. Flynn becomes agitated, but successfully deflects Aloysius' insinuations. The conflict between the priest and nun does not end their, however, and a resolution of sorts is reached by the film's end.

But, in keeping with the film's aforementioned ambiguity, the film produces far more questions than it does answers. The film hinges on the interplay between two opposing states of mind: doubt and certainty. The conflicting concepts apply to different characters at different points during the story. While Flynn seems certain of his innocence at some junctures, during others he appears to be filled with doubt. Aloysius, stubborn as she is, clings to certainty with utter confidence for the majority of the film, but ultimately falls victim to crushing doubt.

More significant than the mentality of any given character is the mindset of those of us sitting in the theatre, taking it all in. After 104 minutes of deciphering which character is right and which is wrong, what is true and what is false, it is the audience who falls victim to the uncomfortable vacillations between certainty and doubt. While I have my own ideas of which character is 'most right', I've spoken with others who feel exactly the opposite. And I think it's fair to expect that most if not all viewers of Doubt would concede while they trust their own judgment, they could be wrong.

The play upon which Doubt is based was apparently a one-act affair. Per Wikipedia: "In interviews, the cast said the second act was what took place when the audience left the theatre and began to discuss their differing opinions of the events - some agreeing with Aloysius and other siding with Flynn." Leaving aside the debatable idea of a second act taking place after curtain-fall, I believe that this concept holds some water. Having taken part in some discussion of the play's cinematic iteration, I can see how one might view such talks as a kind of extension of the story. It's certainly not a brand new idea, but that doesn't make it any less valuable.

Anyway, let's talk cast for a moment. I'm not at all surprised that four actors from this film have been nominated for Academy Awards. Streep and Hoffman are both deserving of wins, even if Hoffman should actually have been nominated in the "Leading Actor" category. Amy Adams' performance as Sister James was beyond convincing, though not award-worthy in my eyes. And Viola Davis' turn as the mother of the allegedly molested student was impressive as well (but is a nomination really warranted when the actress is only given a few minutes of screen-time and a one-dimensionally-written role to work with? William Hurt didn't deserve the nom for his similarly minimal role in A History of Violence, and Davis doesn't really deserve one here either). A dynamic script like Doubt's deserves dynamic actors and Shanley found a quartet of capable conduits in these four players.

I have a problem with Doubt. It has to do with its origins and, possibly, with its director. While I love Shanley's writing (specifically, the way the information contained within and communicated via the dialogue), I wonder if this story might have been made into a better film with someone other than its creator at the helm. Plainly said, Doubt feels like a play. Plays are great, don't get me wrong, but theatre is limited in ways that cinema is not. If you're going to make a play into a movie, why wouldn't you take advantage of those things which distinguish one artform from the other?

Shanley is a writer first, a director second. Beside Doubt, he has directed one film, 19 years ago. That film: Joe Versus the Volcano. I actually like Joe Versus the Volcano quite a lot, but it's not a great movie and I doubt that it could have prepared Shanley for the direction of Doubt. So when it came time for Shanley to make this much more serious film, he naturally fell back on his familiarity with theatre.

Shanley had an opportunity to hit Doubt out of the park. Quite unfortunately, he missed. But when you write a script as strong as Doubt's, and have equally strong actors to bring it vividly to life, even a near-miss can be worth the price of admission.


  1. I have to say, I find your love of this movie slightly bewildering. I found myself completely bored when Philip Seymour Hoffman on screen. I mean, call me crazy but watching 8 nuns eat soup in silence ain't exactly great cinema. And you know me, I'll watch paint drying if it's shot well. Different strokes for different folks, I suppose.

  2. Sorry, that should read "I found myself completely bored with Philip Seymour Hoffman WASN'T on screen".

  3. Ok, don't let me type ever again.

  4. I understand what you meant to say.

    I've talked with a few people about this film and have received vastly different assessments of it. Some people loved it, others were very disappointed. You dug Hoffman's turn and were bored with everyone else. Others have told me they found Hoffman's performance unimpressive.

    It's amazing to me that different viewers saw so many different things in this movie. I guess if the point of the film is to move people to discuss their different POVs, DOUBT certainly succeeded.

    Personally, I think the subject matter, and the role of each character in relation to it, helps shape each persons feelings about the film. I think I'm more interested in the film now that I've heard such varied responses to it than I was when it was still fresh in my mind.