Doubt comes carrying a heavy weight. John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 adaptation of his 2005 play absolutely demands that you respect the clout that comes inherently with the movie’s cast and severe themes. This is a movie that wants your strictest attention from moment one. There’s an amusingly ironic moment that comes midway through Doubt, where Meryl Streep’s Sister Beauvier, a frigid, iron-fisted, almost comically overwrought head nun at St. Nicholas, cracks a joke to Sister James (Amy Adams). Though the joke is quite funny, Sister James doesn’t laugh, as she cannot imagine that Sister Beauvier would deign to have a sense of humor, even briefly. Such is the viewer’s reaction to Doubt, a movie frequently elevated and occasionally burdened by it’s own gravity.
The film is centered around a contentious relationship between Sister Beauvier and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a compassionate, progressive priest recently added to the staff of St. Nicholas in the Bronx. As one might expect, Sister Beauvier doesn’t approve of Father Flynn’s overtures to the secular community, nor his sermons encouraging his congregation to accept their spiritual doubts as necessary to enhance their faith. Sister Beauvier orders her underlings to keep an eye out for any suspicious behavior from Father Flynn, which inevitably leads the doe-eyed innocent Sister James to inform Sister Beauvier about some questionable events involving Father Flynn and the school’s first and only black student. Though Sister James has offered, at the very most, weak anecdotal evidence, it is all Sister Beauvier needs to launch a destructive, if initially passive-aggressive, campaign against Father Flynn, painting him as a raging pedophile.
Given the film’s modern topical relevance coupled with the casting of surefire Academy Awards bait in the three lead roles, one would be forgiven for suspecting that Shanley would use the inherent import of the already acclaimed material and esteem of his cast to lazily coast to Oscar glory. As if that weren’t enough, Shanley hired Roger Deakins as cinematographer, a man who could make a Seltzer/Friedberg catastrophe look gorgeous. Doubt is a film that was all but guaranteed to win a few Academy Award nominations. Unsurprisingly, it pulled down five, four for the superlative cast, and one for Shanley’s screenplay.
Fortunately for the viewer, the cast opt to earn their nominations via thorough and deeply considered performances. Aside from the previously mentioned stars, Viola Davis shows up midway through the movie as the young black child’s mother, and makes such a strong impression in her brief but important role that the movie’s direction palpably shifts. Davis rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for her quietly shattering performance.
Shanley, returning to the director’s chair for the first time in a while (since 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano), keeps his screenplay lean and sharp, and manages the film’s changes in tone rather expertly. Even if he is not a terribly gifted visual stylist, it takes a deft hand to keep an audience convinced that they have everything figured out, only to surprise them with deeper character development. Ultimately, Shanley’s task was to illustrate the important distinction between doubt and certainty, and he manages to do so without relying on easy cinematic twists. There is no big “A-ha!” moment: just ever blurrier shades of gray, which serves the movie’s themes (and title) with admirable consistency.
Of course, Doubt has it’s flaws, occasionally relying on heavy-handed imagery to drive home what the viewer probably understands (e.g. a strong wind storm whipping around Sister Beauvier after she engages in some morally dubious behavior), but these sorts of extravagances are somewhat expected given the academic nature of the material. The ambiguous resolution may turn off a few viewers, but to be bothered about it would be to miss the purpose of the story. Doubt may demand a lot of it’s audience, but it rewards close attention with a well-written story, masterfully acted and powerfully told.