Doubt is so predictably good — Pulitzer Prize-winning source material, top-level cast, accomplished writer-director, etc. — that it’s easy to overlook the nuances and grace notes in the execution that make it truly great. One of the best measures of a film’s quality is how closely it adheres to the maxim that it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it, and in that regard the film is a fantastic success, a probing, tightly woven, powerfully acted examination of the cost of faith. There’s a deep honesty to the story, a kind of unflinching and completely believable way the film unfolds and the relationships become wrapped around each other that moves it beyond the area of just some abstract or academic treatise on suspicion and doubt and turns it into a living, breathing, dangerous thing. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley, who adapted his own play, Doubt is a fantastically rendered version of the stage story, revolving around the same basic beats and scenes but still accomplished as a film. It’s so accomplished, and full of such casually powerful moments, that it would be easy to write it off as “as good as expected,” but to do that would be to rob the film of the respect and thought it genuinely deserves.
Set in 1964, the film opens with an elegiac series of simple images that firmly establish everything from the era’s family politics to religious practices, especially as they revolve around St. Nicholas Church and School. Altar boys prepare to serve Mass, congregants drift into the pews in groups, and Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) addresses his flock with a question: “What do you do when you’re not sure?” His opening sermon — one of three that act as markers that trace the arc of the film — is about the power of doubt, and his goal is to comfort his listeners by telling them that even in their darkest moments, they’re not alone. The fact that Flynn’s homily is just an enormous set-up for the story that’s about to play out is as direct and unsurprising as you can get, but reflective of the film’s more self-aware beginnings as a play and in line with Shanley’s goal to translate the story to film but to maintain its stylistic execution as well as thematic discourse. (The play’s full title is actually Doubt: A Parable, which should tell you a lot.)
For most of the first act, the film plays out at a leisurely pace, setting up the characters and allowing their interactions to develop the story naturally. The principal at St. Nicholas School is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), an almost cartoonishly bitter woman who seems to have long ago lost whatever joy she found in the decision to don the habit. She’s a fierce disciplinarian who keeps the students living in mortal terror of seeing the inside of her office, but she’s balanced out by Sister James (Amy Adams), a sweet and thoroughly naïve young woman who wants nothing more out of her students than for them to enjoy history class. Shanley takes his time laying the foundations of the story in the first act, sliding between fragmented scenes and half-formed sequences that still manage to communicate everything that’s happening as well as how the characters feel about it. It’s a skillful method of storytelling that mirrors what will become the narrative thrust of the film: No one ever comes out and directly accuses anyone else of any crime or indecency, but the subject matter and power struggles couldn’t be clearer. Shanley relies upon knowing glances and pregnant pauses to tell the darkest secrets, and he winds up making a movie about pedophilia without ever using the word. But the film reflects the human truth that some things need no words, and are so horrible and destructive that speaking them aloud threatens not just the accused but the world of the accuser.
Because that accusation is what sets the heart of the story in motion. Flynn has taken on the role of mentor for Donald Muller (Joseph Foster), an altar boy with a troubled home life who’s also got the burden of being the only black student in school. Flynn is a progressive man — he references Kennedy in his opening sermon, and he later says that priests and nuns should feel like “family members” to people in the neighborhood — and a caring one, and he wants the boy to do well. But based on suspicion, fueled by uncertainty, and hoping to in some way please Sister Aloysius, Sister James comes to believe that Flynn’s relationship with Donald isn’t what it seems to be. She confesses her worries to Suster Aloysius, who quickly runs with the theory before Sister James can even really be sure what’s happening. “I’m not telling you that; I’m not even certain what you mean,” Sister James says, but the “that” in her sentence is loaded with meaning and fear, and its use betrays that Sister James knows exactly what she’s talking about. Shanley’s story is gripping in the mercurial way it slips from one assumption and conversation to the next, building a head of steam on nothing but hope and guesses in a manner that’s all too human. Soon enough, the film has turned into a battle to determine whether Flynn actually made sexual advances on Donald, yet no one ever says it in so many words.
Although the action continues to move among the school and lesser players in the story, the bulk of the film deals with Sister Aloysius’ single-minded desire to find Flynn guilty of molestation and Flynn’s full-throated denial of wrongdoing. The battles play out over four key scenes, each beautifully played by their actors and tightly directed by Shanley: the initial discussion between Flynn and the two nuns in which he’s accused of impropriety; a moving scene on a park bench in which Flynn pleads his innocence to Sister James; a harrowing conversation between Sister Aloysius and Donald’s mother (Viola Davis); and a final showdown between Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Shanley commutes his play from stage to screen remarkably well, and these central set pieces aren’t just chances for the characters to state their cases but for the story itself to speak to the viewer. Rather than attempt to serve as a remote, omniscient narrator, Shanley embraces both sides of the story, forcing the issue’s complexity and highlighting the outcome’s uncertainty.
It almost goes without saying that the cast is fantastic, the four central actors working wonderfully together. Streep’s transformative power is something to behold, and she’s riveting as a woman who refuses to admit defeat but who also has moments of compassion. Hoffman is nearly always great, and he’s still great here. His role is the toughest one because he has to be likable enough to seem persecuted but sly enough to hint at guilt, and he’s perfect at living in the tension. Davis is barely on screen, but she’s amazing with what little time she has. Adams is a natural choice for the role of Sister James, and she brings an air of youth and reluctant wisdom that she channeled so well in Junebug. Shanley’s made a really good film, a compelling story that’s well told and skillfully acted, but above all that it’s an honest one. It attacks its subject matter —the essence of doubt and the power of belief — with all the care and intelligence and respect for the audience worthy of such a task. It’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it, and Shanley is brilliant at both.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.The Evidence of Things Not Seen
Film | December 30, 2008 | Comments ()