Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Merryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
It’s 1964. President Kennedy was just assassinated and the Civil Rights Act has been passed. The times-they-are-a-changin’. In a parish in the Bronx, the lone black student struggles to fit in with his classmates, but the kind and gentle priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) takes him under his wing. Before long, the school principal and head nun (Merryl Streep) suspects him of molesting the child and makes it her mission to expose him despite lacking proof. At times poignant and evocative, “Doubt” works as a cautionary tale against the dangers of excessive confidence.
The film benefits most from its stellar cast and sharp writing. There are two truly exceptional scenes: the initial confrontation between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn, and the nearly pitch-perfect denouement (or lack thereof). In the former, the filmmaker serves up an exemplary introduction of what’s to come - a highly dramatic battle of the wills between two bitter antagonists. Philip Seymour Hoffman just barely squeaks out the better performance by showing his remarkable ability to convey contradictory emotions in a single facial expression. It’s hard to tell whether Father Flynn is simply overcome with indignation by Sister Aloysius’ off-base accusations, or if he’s betraying feelings of guilt and fear.
In contrast, Merryl Streep plays her role without a hint of nuance or subtlety. Her character is little more than a diabolical zealot fired up for a witch-hunt. Later on in the movie, there’s even a shot of her holding up a prop that looks an awful lot like a pitchfork. Streep still makes for a haunting (albeit two-dimensional) villain.
The brilliance of the first showdown, however, isn’t only in the acting. John Patrick Shanley, a playwright by trade, knows a thing or two about stagecraft. The scene begins rather calmly with Sister Aloysius assuming the subservient position prescribed to her by the Church’s strict hierarchy, but the tension quickly crescendoes, and the nun from hell goes for the kill. The ringing telephone that no one dares answer mid-interrogation adds a particularly nice touch.
The final few minutes are another show stopping piece of cinema, and end the film on a high note. Shanley resists the urge to conveniently wrap everything together, and the central question goes unanswered. Unfortunately, he allows little room for doubt. It’s quite clear Sister Aloysius is just a mean muckraking woman and Father Flynn did nothing wrong. Still, the unresolved ending lets the audience decide exactly what went down. It just might have been that much more effective had the director left the conclusion even more ambiguous.
These two portions of the film are the indisputable highlights. The other hour and a half has some memorable moments - including the priest’s opening sermon and Viola Davis’ (who plays the black student’s enduring mother) notable appearance - but it mostly pales in comparison.