Doubt (2008)

Directed by John Patrick Stanley

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Damn.  So Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Viola Davis and Amy Adams are pretty amazing.  I’m left so awestruck by their performances that I kind of forget what the movie is even about.  Doubt constructs just enough of a story, about the relationship between a priest and a black student in 1964, to establish the conflict and stakes, and then the actors just run with it.

Adapted from a play by the same writer/director, Doubt is based mostly around three long scenes that would certainly play well in a theater.  In these scenes it matters not so much what the issue is, just that they’re on opposite sides of it.  The joy, as a viewer, comes from watching these heavyweights trade verbal blows over and over, and I’m no actor but this has got to be the masterclass in acting, right? (maybe after Glengarry Glen Ross and Twelve Angry Men).

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Father Brendan Flynn, a self-assured, compassionate, charismatic priest at a Catholic School in 1964 New York.  Meryl Streep plays the school’s principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier.  Where Flynn is kind and gentle, she is ruthless, and they are quickly at odds, even if just silently so.

They go about things differently, and each notices the ways in which the other works.  When Sister Beauvier forcefully summons a young boy to her office, Flynn smirks to Sister James (Amy Adams) and says, “the dragon’s hungry.”  When Father Flynn delivers a sermon on the nature of doubt, right at the beginning of the film, it triggers Sister Beauvier who then tells Sister James to be on the lookout for any strange behavior on Father Flynn’s part.

It’s his acknowledgement of ‘doubt’ which sets the story’s conflict in motion.  Sister James, the innocent, kindly, blank slate of a character in the middle of the two, will struggle to make sense of their diverging world views.  How can she respect both of them when they don’t respect each other?

Already on the lookout, Sister James will report to Sister Beauvier the strange behavior of a student of hers.  It is Donald Miller (Jospeh Foster), an African American kid, the only non-white student in the entire school, at least as far as the movie is concerned.  She says his breath smelled of alcohol and he seemed to have something on his mind, following a one-on-one meeting with Father Flynn behind closed doors.

Sister Beauvier will bring in Father Flynn for a meeting about the upcoming Christmas pageant which quickly evolves into what she really wanted to talk about: his meeting with Miller.  It’s the best scene of the movie, a long bout in the ring between the two of them while Sister James stands helplessly to the side, only interjecting in an effort to soothe things over.

The whole scene is amazing.  Between gender politics as well as differences in religious and culture beliefs, the scene makes all the subtext crystal clear.  It is perhaps a little on the nose, but this heightened reality is, I suppose, part of a melodrama.  The sealed-off world of Doubt acts as a litmus test to examine unspoken modes of thinking that exist in the real world.

The reactions by these three to the drama unfolding, of course, ignores what really happened between Father Flynn and Donald Miller, because we can’t know what truly unfolded.  There is a potential heart to this story, between a man unwilling to hold back compassion and a bullied boy who lacks a strong male presence in his life, but of course that pathos is made rotten by the simple fact that we don’t know what happened.  We see glimpses of their relationship, mostly in a couple long stares (often just Miller regarding the Father) and acts of kindness, though because of the lens through which we see this, those acts of kindness are severely tarnished.  To preserve the mystery of what may or may not have happened, we are made to critique and investigate what we see rather than to take it at face value.  In that way we are made to see things as Sister Aloysius does.

I felt pretty strongly that I knew what happened, or what we were inclined to think had happened between Flynn and Miller, but such a reading seems too simplistic and an unfair to one of the characters.  Thinking about it now the truth seems more vague, and I’m left thinking less favorably of the character I’d been so invested in.  Really this is just an effective tale of “doubt,” and the lasting impression, to me, is that when there is room for doubt, there is room to erode your sense of each character.  They are reduced to pawns, their value determined by circumstantial evidence, and in the search for an impossible truth, it seems, everyone loses.  Is that right?

Up Next: The Mule (2018), They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), Amadeus (1984)

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