Doubt (2008) ****
Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Thank God I didn’t see Doubt on my own. This screen adaptation of Shanley’s brilliant play leaves ultimate judgment in the hands of the audience, and as such, it’s almost necessary to discuss this film with others in order to truly articulate and appreciate the many possible conclusions one can reach after witnessing the battle that takes place between stubborn Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and sketchy Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Shanley’s dialogue is so wonderfully rich, filled with theatrical flourishes and romanticized symbolism. Unfortunately, not all of these stagy details translate successfully from stage to screen. Too often, something happens in a scene which is meant to add a layer of either suspense or atmosphere, but instead comes off manipulative and obvious. If one more light bulb burnt out, and if one more bird was shown, and if the wind blew one more time, I may have begun to dislike the film as a whole. Take, for example, a phone that rings right in the middle of a tense confrontation between Streep, Hoffman and Amy Adams, who plays innocent Sister James. Clearly meant to add dissonance in order to bring heightened tension, the loud ringing ultimately proves unnecessary and even distracting considering that the amazing performances by Streep and Hoffman during this encounter add just the right amount of anxiety. Further, there were a handful of moments when Shanley directs the camera to shoot scenes diagonally. Clearly meant to throw the viewer off balance, they instead took me completely out of the film.
Adams’ performance is too on the nose. Sister James is meant to be naïve, but I don’t think she’s meant to be Snow White. Hoffman is truly spectacular, owning the complicated dialogue and striking the perfect balance between cockiness and compassion which is imperative to the doubt which concludes the film. If The Dark Knight came out a different year, I believe that Hoffman would be the clear favorite to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
No one has more on screen presence than Meryl Streep. When her character is fired up, she absolutely steals the show. Yet, I found her twitchiness during her calm moments a bit heavy handed. Overall, Streep’s performance works when it needs to, despite its unevenness.
Though not a commentary on Catholic priest sexual abuse as a whole, Doubt does focus on an accusation made against Father Flynn regarding this very subject. Viola Davis plays the mother of the alleged victim. You’d think that her character would be outraged and disgusted by what is supposedly happening to her son. Well, that’s not at all what you get with this character. I won’t give away anything more except to say that Shanley takes one of the biggest risks I’ve ever seen by choosing to have the mother react in the way she does. Had he and Davis not presented this character correctly, the entire film could have imploded. Davis, though only in one substantial scene, gives one of the very best performances of the year. Though I’m still rooting for Marissa Tomei for The Wreslter to win Best Supporting Actress, I’d still be thrilled if Davis goes home with the Oscar.
Doubt is a frustrating emotion, and surely Shanley’s film will leave many frustrated. Again, I must point out how wonderfully ballsy Doubt truly is. Though the dialogue probably works better as a play than a film, it’s still powerfully infuriating, and that’s a huge compliment!