Saturday, November 6, 2010

Obsessed with Doubt

I am obsessed with John Patrick Shanley’s film version of his play, Doubt.  Shanley wrote the piece, adapted it for film, and directed as well.  I suppose he is just as obsessed.

My fascination with this film began a little over a year ago when I first rented the DVD.  By the time the end credits were rolling, I was ready to restart the film and watch it again.  At first, my reason for another viewing was to see if maybe I had missed something; some plot point that cleared up the ambiguity of the story’s denouement.  At least that’s what I told myself.

The second viewing actually took place a day or two later.  It was a Saturday morning, very early.  I settled in on the sofa and sipped a mug of coffee and found myself again mesmerized by this strange and fascinating tale of an avenging Mother Superior who goes toe to toe with an alleged pedophile priest.

Set in the late fall / early winter of 1964, Doubt takes place at an inner-city Catholic grade  school where Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) rules the roost like some kind of Ninja in a black bonnet.  Sister Aloysius is not fond of ball point pens, candy, sugar, berets or long fingernails.  She strikes fear into the hearts of her students as well as the  rest of the nuns who teach at the school.  More that that, she’s also not afraid to physically discipline her charges.  Her only fear seems to be the winds of change that are blowing around her (both figuratively and literally), and she holds on with an iron grip to the past as she sees societal changes slowly creeping into her own cloistered existence.
Amongst the darkly clad nuns, and the solemn faced children at Saint Nicholas  is Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a smiling, seemingly gentle, obviously personable, and very popular priest who treats the children kindly and often offers them words of advice. When he witnesses Sister Aloysius calling a boy out of line for some transgression, he murmurs to a novitiate, “The dragon is hungry!”   Father is also not afraid to shake things up on the pulpit, as is witnessed in a very early scene where he gives a sermon on the topic of doubt which he concludes, “can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty.”

A young nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) is also a teacher at the school, and while it is obvious that she wants to impress Sister Aloysius, she’s also more concerned with teaching her students than terrifying them.   Strangely enough, though Sister James appears the most innocent of the three main characters, her actions are what set in to motion the film’s story.

One afternoon, Sister James notices something that she finds suspicious concerning the school’s only African American student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), and Father Flynn.  Once she reports her suspicions to Sister Aloysius, Pandora’s box opens and no matter what she might try to do to close it up again, Sister James can not.

Doubt deals with very a delicate, but very timely, subject matter; the sexual abuse of a minor at the hands of a Catholic priest.  And while it might seem a simple leap  for the viewer to believe this accusation against Father Flynn…well, as Ringo Starr once said, “It don’t come easy”.  Indeed, my obsession with this film is partially based on my looking for clues as to the priest’s guilt or innocence. And that’s just it – there are no real clues, no witnesses, just a strong suspicion and whatever baggage the viewer brings to the table.  Personally, I find myself flipping back and forth every time I view this film.  One minute, every outrageous accusation that Sister Aloysius throws at Father Flynn makes perfect sense, then later, it just seems like she’s got some sort of hidden agenda, and maybe Sister James was right when she said to her, “You just don't like him! You don't like it that he uses a ballpoint pen. You don't like it that he takes 3 lumps of sugar in his tea. You don't like it that he likes Frosty the Snowman and you are letting that convince you of something that's terrible... Just terrible...”

Another thing about Doubt that I obsess over, are the performances.  There is not one flat acting note in this film – even the linear characters ring true.  Hell, even the school is a character – a Gothic sort of haunted house where light bulbs blow out over the heads of authority figures, and windows are found mysteriously open during wind and rain storms.  That said, it’s the three principal leads (and one brief but brilliant moment by a supporting actress) that make Doubt so damn compelling.
Meryl Streep inhabits Sister Aloysius and infuses her with such ferocity that it’s downright terrifying.  Our first introduction to her is as she’s silently gliding down a church aisle  during mass quietly but sternly reprimanding the children in the pews – and even slapping  one boy on the side of his head (and if you spent anytime in Catholic school during the 60’s or 70’s you know that sort of thing was the norm).  With her wire rim glasses and black bonnet habit, Streep is a pale, cold vision of anger and disgruntlement – a woman who could only find a way to voice her frustrations at life’s injustices to women  by hiding her femininity  behind an iron tunic (we discover at one point, that before she joined the order she was married  and her husband was killed in World War II).   What’s also fascinating about Streep’s characterization is the way she finds occasional moments to infuse some sarcastic humor into the role.  Indeed, some of – in fact all of – Doubt’s brief comic moments come courtesy of Sister Aloysius.  Finally, for all her bluster and bravado, Streep makes it quite clear that her Sister Aloysius is also a woman terrified of the changes coming .  She senses them all around her, and wants no part of them.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn as such a likable character, it’s almost impossible to believe he could do anything wrong, let alone molest a young boy.  And yet, maybe that’s the genius of his performance.  His monster , his wolf, is wrapped so tight in sheep's clothing, most can not see through it.  But watch the film more than once and maybe you see the mask slipping (why does that one boy flinch when ever Father comes near him – in fact keep an eye on the boy called William London (Mike Roukis), he seems to be the wild card in this tale, you have to watch the film several times to see what I mean-  why are Father’s fingernails long and almost claw-like, and, most importantly, why does he not go down without a fight?).   Hoffman’s Flynn is so beguiling, because he is so hard to pin down.

Amy Adams take on Sister James could easily be overlooked, but that’s because she plays the young teaching nun so effortlessly. Adams gives this character heart and a conscience.  She’s still feeling her way through the world of teaching and the convent life, she still seems to actually care for the children she teaches.  I think Adams really shines in the one scene where, disgusted at herself for the trouble she might be causing, she mimics Sister Aloysius and starts berating one of her students.   Later on you can see how heartbroken she is for her actions.
Of course there is not much that can be said about Viola Davis and her performance as Mrs. Miller.   How astounding it is, that this woman who is on screen for all of maybe fifteen minutes (acting against Streep), almost steals the movie and tucks it neatly under her arm.  Davis turns Mrs. Miller into a loving mother, desperate to make a better life for her son, and if that means sacrificing his innocence, so be it.  And while that may sound cold, all one has to do is watch her performance and it’s very clear that her motives are pure.

Another reason I am obsessed with Doubt is due to what I call “The Showdown Scene”.  This is the moment of the movie when Streep and Hoffman’s characters face off – it is a masters class in acting.  It’s also a brutal moment when it is hard to tell exactly who is really the bad guy.  This is when Sister Aloysius proclaims that she has no proof, but that she does have her “certainty” and then, looking both crazed and defiant, clutching her crucifix like it might be a dagger she screams at the priest,”I will step outside the church if that's what needs to be done, till the door should shut behind me! I will do what needs to be done, though I'm damned to Hell! You should understand that, or you will mistake me. “  Clearly this is woman with a rather large axe to grind.   So when Father Flynn looks defeated, I ask myself is it because he’s guilty, or is it because he’s up against such an angry, unbalanced adversary who is willing to go to the police.  Maybe it was just easier for him to walk away, than risk public humiliation.

But in the end, Father Flynn does leave – reassigned to another parish (with a promotion!) and by now the viewer might be willing to believe that he was up to no good, that Sister Aloysius did have the goods on him after all (she tells him at one point that she spoke to a nun at his last church).  But then we discover that was a lie.  And in the film's waning moments, we start to ask ourselves what went on.  If that’s not enough, in the final scene, Sister Aloysius is sitting with Sister Jane on a bench in the dead of winter and the Mother Superior breaks down in tears, once more clutching that crucifix like a dagger, but then hiding it under her tunic and sobs, “Oh sister, I have doubts.  I have such doubts!”  That’s when I usually scream, “About what? His guilt, your faith in God, the way your run the school, your life’s profession?”  And then I tell myself, I am going to have to watch this movie again, maybe then I’ll figure it out.

Who knows, maybe I never will.


Andre said...

This was such a pleasure to read Pax. I admit I've never seen Doubt, and always pretty much avoided it due to how serious, heavy, and I'm sure--aggravating in some ways, never knowing if he did or didn't. But this article really sparked my interest. I shouldn't need to be persuaded to watch a movie with such great acting ability, and a film that got such praise--but hey, that's what I do. Hehe.

So thank you for this, and I will now suck it up and watch this amazing film.

Pax Romano said...


You are very welcome - by all means see this, I'd love to hear your take on it. Yes the acting is so incredible and that's one of the reasons I keep coming back.

TheGirlWhoLovesHorror said...

I saw this at the theater and was expecting such a different movie. Trailers made it look so thrilling and all, that I was not prepared for this slow, calculated, but without a doubt (haha, see what I did there?) beautiful and wonderful film! The performances are so top notch by all the major players, even the young boy, and it is how they play each character that keeps sowing those seeds in your head - guilty, not guilty. The performers play it either way the whole time and while it may be frustrating to some, I don't know that the movie is really about his guilt or innocence. It's about rumor and suspicion and how far we take them, how steadfast we hold on to our beliefs in something and how hard it is to change.

Great review! I haven't seen this since it came out - I should give it another watch!

Pax Romano said...


That's it - sowing of seeds in the viewers head. Well put.

My one regret is that I did not see this at a theater.

Nate Yapp said...

I've added this to my Netflix queue based solely on your post here, Pax. I'm intrigued to get to the bottom of what appears to be a bottomless well of cinematic possibility.

Pax Romano said...

Nate Yikes!

Hope you enjoy it as much as I did.