Genre: Drama, Mystery
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Screenwriters: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
As Doubt opens, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is giving a sermon at St. Nicholas in the Bronx. What he says is comforting and inclusive, the sort of teaching that typifies the “new,” “friendlier” Christianity. When you feel alone, isolated, unsure, he says — when a private, personal calamity befalls you — know that we’re all in it together. “Doubt is a bond as powerful as certainty.” The church is packed and, for the most part, attentive. Father Flynn is obviously popular. As he speaks, he regards his parishioners with a sense of significance and responsibility.
At the same time, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal of the St. Nicholas grade school, watches her charges, who are seated together on one side of the church, in front of her. One of the boys is leaning on the back of a pew, staring out the window. Sister Aloysius stands and walks toward him, almost creeping; director John Patrick Shanley, adapting his own play, shoots her from the back and below the neck. She stands to the boy’s left and bends ninety degrees — this is the first time we see her face. She gives him a hearty smack upside the head: “Straighten up!” Not a whisper, but a hiss. Later, the young, earnest Sister James (Amy Adams) will gently upbraid her superior: “The children are all uniformly terrified of you.”
Eventually, when Sister James accuses Father Flynn of initiating an inappropriate relationship with the school’s lone black student, Doubt becomes a modest mystery: did he or didn’t he? Sister Aloysius is convinced that he did; Father Flynn denies it; Sister James is deeply conflicted. The boy’s mother, grateful for Father Flynn’s protectiveness of her son, insists that it is best to simply let this go. Indeed, there is a question of whether the boy might welcome the attention.
The movie, however, is not greatly concerned with what Father Flynn may or may not have done to Donald Miller in the rectory. It focuses, instead, on the opposing facets of religion represented by Flynn and Sister Aloysius in that opening scene. As Doubt would have it, religion both soothes the soul and provides an inflexible moral standard by which one is to be judged. The latter function, by definition, permits no ambiguity; the former requires it. And sometimes the two clash. It’s not surprising that the hateful rhetoric of some modern Christian conservatism seems at odds with the popular notion of Jesus as love incarnate.
The brilliance of the film is that neither Father Flynn nor Sister Aloysius are symbols masquerading as characters. Both sides of religion arise out of deeply ingrained human impulses: the need for spiritual comfort, and the need for moral certainty. And so Sister Aloysius is a merciless disciplinarian — not, frankly, a very nice woman — but her aggressive rectitude is borne not of nastiness or a hunger for power, but a deep-seated sense of justice and order. And Father Flynn, who stepped wrong somewhere along the way (the film is nicely ambiguous as to where), is a nice man who wants very badly to be liked — a desire many of us will find familiar.
Streep and Hoffman are two of the most exciting actors we have, and their performances make Doubt an intense experience, almost akin to a thriller. They make different choices — Streep nods to the source material and gives a theatrical, larger-than-life performance, with line readings that play to the cheap seats; Hoffman is more restrained, letting Father Flynn’s fury simmer and occasionally bubble over — but both choices work, I think. They’re never less than interesting. It makes sense to see the film twice, staring at Streep the first time in their scenes together, and at Hoffman the second. And then there’s Streep’s single scene with Viola Davis, who plays the mother of the boy Sister Aloysius suspects is Father Flynn’s victim; Davis is fantastic, but watch Sister Aloysius’s incredulity as she realizes that Donald Miller’s mom may not be too concerned about the possibility that her son is being abused. That shocks her far more than the possibility that her church’s priest is a predator.
Doubt avoids facile answers. Father Flynn is neither an obvious pervert nor a total innocent; Sister Aloysius is neither a righteous crusader (despite what she may think) nor a vicious inquisitor. After the powerful ending, we walk away with this: absolute, intractable certainty is dangerous, even if you happen to be right.