Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams in 2008’s Doubt
I’ve been debating what my first ACTUAL movie review for this blog should be: I could follow up my Disney Challenge Intro with my promised review of the Disney “Classical Era” films, or I could hold off on that for a little while longer and write about one of this year’s movies, such as Boyhood, The Lego Movie, Snowpiercer, or Life Itself, all of which I’ve seen over the last month.
Instead, I shall do neither.
Instead, I am going to write about a 6-year-old movie that I just saw for the first time last week.
2008’s Doubt, self-adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play of the same name, combines two things near and dear to me: great acting and Catholicism. Surprisingly, the Catholic nature of Doubt is treated objectively and respectfully, even amid its heavy subject matter, which is quite rare in a mainstream Hollywood movie. As an added bonus, Doubt features the late, great, and sorely-missed Philip Seymour Hoffman in a supporting role just morally ambiguous enough to leave the audience’s sympathies conflicted, resulting in a very tense and powerful movie experience.
Set at a Bronx Catholic church and school in 1964, Doubt tells the story of an alleged case of sexual abuse, although this serves as a plot point rather than the underlying theme of the film. Crotchety, strict Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) warns her younger, more liberal nuns to watch out for any misdoings around the parish or school after warm-hearted Father Brendan Flynn (Hoffman) gives a particularly striking sermon on the nature of doubt. Young, naive Sister James (Amy Adams) notices Father Flynn’s distinct attachment to new student Donald Miller, the only black boy in the school. After catching the boy with alcohol on his breath after a private meeting with the priest, she goes to her superior, who then makes it her “though-I-be-damned-to-hell” mission to find out the truth behind Father Flynn’s relationship with the boy. The battle of wills that ensues between Streep and Hoffman yields results and changes at the church, but not necessarily those one would expect. It also brings into question the film’s main theme, clearly outlined in the film’s opening minutes (oh, yes, and by its title), doubt, as well as the consequences of being resilient to the point of intolerance.
The four main leads, Streep, Hoffman, Adams, and Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller, the alleged victim’s mother, are outstanding, and all deservedly received Oscar nominations at the 2009 Academy Awards. Amy Adams exudes an innocence that struggles with the strictness of her surroundings, especially the overbearing, miserable presence of Sister Aloysius. She loves her students and is optimistic to the point where she cannot believe that Father Flynn would be a pedophile, let alone lie about it, even though she subconsciously must have had misgivings as she brought Flynn’s suspicious activity to the attention of Streep’s character. When she finally breaks under the pressure of the events encircling her and lashes out at a talkative, but innocent, student in her class, we can see the pain in her eyes as she realizes that she has gone too far. She is not ready for a cynical world where pain and suffering are very real.
Viola Davis, in a single 11-minute scene (her only other appearance is a single, silent shot of her face near the film’s end) is devastating as a mother caught between a rock and a hard place, suffering in a marriage to a violent husband who disapproves of his son while holding onto the hope that graduating from a good Catholic school will lead to better high school placement for Donald and a chance at college after that. Streep’s look of incredulousness at Davis’s tear-stained refusal of help is haunting. Streep, in what was her 15th Oscar nominated-role, is formidable, bitter, and stern, but after Adams’ revelation about the possibility of abuse, we as the audience begin to see her human side, and – without spoiling anything – by the film’s end, she is very human. Her quest for the truth is insatiable after this point, and she drives the remainder of the movie as she moves to take down Father Flynn.
Hoffman, especially now, 6 months after his untimely and unfortunate death, is a sight to be seen, even in the subdued, mostly-background role of Father Flynn. The seemingly-boisterous and friendly Father Flynn remains a mystery for most of the movie, only taking the forefront early on in the film in a few brief scenes revolving around his cryptic homilies at Mass; the only instances we gleam of him elsewhere are through the eyes of the two suspicious sisters, and his (admittedly suspicious) actions, such as showing the boys’ basketball team his long fingernails during a practice that he is coaching, or giving Donald a hug of reassurance in the hallway after a bully knocks his books out of his hands, can be construed to be entirely innocent or subtly malevolent. It is during the climactic confrontational scene in which he goes head to head with Streep that Hoffman finally has enough to do and say to warrant his Oscar nomination. His incredulity at Sister Aloysius’ allegations and her refusal to believe in his innocence, contrasted with his look of terror when she claims to have unearthed information regarding his last assignment at another parish, solidifies Father Flynn’s ambiguous nature, and ultimately leads to the fulfillment of the film’s treatise on the idea of doubt.
Is Father Flynn guilty? Does Sister Aloysius have proof of past misconduct? Is it enough to force Father Flynn out of his church? Or is she committing a witch hunt based on personal misgivings for change, the Church’s patriarchy, and Frosty the Snowman? Again, I don’t want to spoil Doubt’s ending because I highly recommend it to anyone who respects a fine Meryl Streep performance, misses Philip Seymour Hoffman, enjoys seeing Amy Adams in a wimple, or has a knack for old-school Catholicism like me. It is definitely worth the watch.
(And thank you, Google, for informing me that wimple is the correct term for “nun hat.” You learn something new every day.)