Everybody makes snap judgments without knowing all the facts. How many of us formed an opinion on O.J. Simpson’s murder case while he was still speeding in his white Bronco? Only once have I had the good fortune to serve on a jury. It was a prostitution case. The defendant had advertised herself on the internet and the police had enacted a sting operation to bring her down. Of course the cop didn’t fully commit to the act a la Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire.” The case lasted only a couple of hours, when after only sitting through half of the opening remarks, the charges were adjusted and then accepted. Afterward, I talked with another juror to see what he thought about what little we had heard. He and I had a completely opposing view of what our verdicts might have been. Although such things occur even after knowing the details, this was a case where we laid claim to an opinion knowing very little. The second-guessing that exists after making an accusation lies at the core of Doubt.
Taking place in the 1964 Bronx, the film opens on Father Brendan Flynn, sermonizing to his congregation. He is new to the parish and still in the midst of creating a reputation. He is of a new generation. One that wants to bring change to the church’s rigid ways and invite people to take part of the celebration, rather then kept in the cold isolation of condemnation. Sister Aloysius Beauvier, is of the old-school. She is by far the most senior resident at St. Nicholas, or at least the most discerning. She is much less interested in hearing what the new priest has to say and is more hell-bent on disciplining children, who aren’t paying attention to the sermon themselves. Although the two characters have no interaction in this scene, the dichotomy between them is established for the duration.
Finding herself caught between the two battling ideologies is Sister James. She is young, and most likely just out of seminary school. She is cut from a more similar cloth to Father Flynn, although she is ripe to be molded by either of the domineering personalities above her. Her classroom is not made up of screw-offs, but they get away with mischief. It’s when Sister Beauvier storms into Sister James’ classroom where the kids are truly disciplined. Sister Beauvier appears to have distain for her fellow Sister, as she tries to impose her will on her. It’s when Sister James becomes suspicious of Father Flynn, where she has no choice to but bring it to Sister Beauvier and the two join forces.
These suspicions involve Donald Miller, the only black child in school, who has taken a liking to Father Flynn, as he does likewise. He is encouraged by Father Flynn and aspires to be a priest, just like his idol. One day, he is called to Father Flynn’s office and returns to class, resting his head in shame. Sister James claims she smelled alcohol on his breath and suspects something unruly had taken place. Father Flynn is naturally adamant about his innocence and Sister Beauvier is insistent about his guilt. The totality of the film is devoted to the tug-of-war between two larger-than-life personalities in an attempt to unveil the truth.
Movies based on plays sometimes don’t use all of the resources available to them. Doubt, written and directed by John Patrick Shanley (Joe vs. the Volcano), doesn’t entirely elude this notion as there are some very long scenes. He does his best to spice it up with canted angles and some overheard shots, but it’s with the cinematography and art direction where the film excels visually. The brilliant green of Father Flynn’s priest wardrobe captured my attention far easier than any sermon I’ve sat through on a Sunday morning. The look of the film elevates it from good dialogue-driven stage material to a rich cinematic experience.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Father Flynn is a man in a position of trust. When that trust is accused of being broken, he does what he can to restore it, but you have a feeling he could do a little more to prove his innocence. Going toe-to-toe with Meryl Streep’s Sister Beauvier is a real treat, as we get to see these two acting powerhouses try to convince the other as well as the viewer of their point of view. Stuck in the middle like Monie is Amy Adams’ Sister James. She plays the part of the neutral observer in the film and the character viewers will most closely identify with. Adams has made the flighty ditz a trademark with Junebug and Enchanted, but it’s less of a clueless act in Doubt than it is one not yet shaped by worldly experiences.
There are a few points in the film where the dialogue is frustrating. Characters don’t say exactly what they’re talking about. Accusations aren’t direct, nor are their deflections. Even the accusation of whatever did or did not occur between Father Flynn and Donald Miller is not completely spelled out. This is all by design, however, for if you do not know what the accusation is, how can you deny it? If you do not know exactly what you’re accusing someone of, how can you condemn it? The issue of “doubt” is spread around to where the viewer may have to re-think their own conclusion.
Superbly acted and well-translated from the stage, I have a feeling that even with big-name stars, Doubt will fly under the radars of most movie-goers in this crowded Holiday season. I hope after reading this review you’ll doubt the decision to do so. It may even change your mind on making snap decisions through purely circumstantial evidence. Maybe that girl really wasn’t prostituting herself.