Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008)

I tried avoiding “Doubt” like the plague because previews screamed Oscar-bait: based on an acclaimed play about the hot-button issue of molestation in the Church, starring Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Bait themselves, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Meryl Streep.  I gave in…I was right, and I was wrong.  Hoffman and Streep, they of sixteen nominations between them, are Oscar bait for a reason…they’re damned good actors, and they’re both outstanding in “Doubt.”  Streep makes your skin crawl as the creepy, puritanical-esque Sister Aloysius (how’s that for an intimidating name?), and Hoffman has moments just as creepy as Father Flynn, who’s kind to the altar boys (a little too kind, perhaps?) and who you so desperately want to believe as he becomes the focal point of Sister Aloysius’ witch hunt.  I was less impressed with a shrill and too-innocent Amy Adams as the young Sister who brings her suspicions to Sister Aloysius but later has regrets, and Viola Davis as the mother of the boy Father Flynn’s allegedly gotten too close to (her performance has gotten unbelievable acclaim from critics, and she was very good, but it was nothing profound or anything…hell, she only gives the 3rd best performance in this film). But this movie belongs to the heavyweights Hoffman and Streep in incredible performances.  Neither character will back down to the other in their war of wills, and it all leads to one hell of a screaming match and confrontation of will, faith, and resolve in the Sister’s office that’s as phenomenal as nearly any two-character confrontation you’ll see on a movie screen.  The doubt over whether or not Father Flynn actually did what Sister Aloysius so desperately believes (or wants to believe) he did is handled with class, and is left ambiguous.  Any kind of definitive answer to the mystery (which might not be a mystery at all) would just pander down to the audience and isn’t the point.  The point is the conflict that arises between these two titans in the arena of a principal’s office, and how suspicion, gossip, and doubt can bring out a person’s true self.

Great performances, and a surprisingly nuanced screenplay, but for god’s sake, why is the man who wrote the play, with no directing experience other than “Joe Versus the Volcano,” directing the film adaptation?  Any film based on a play needs the director and whatever visual touches come with that director to take a back seat and let the actors and the words they’re saying come to the forefront.  But that didn’t happen here, no sir.  This John Patrick Shanley fellow had to add visual flair and ‘wow, look at me act!’ moments that’re right out of a student film.  A single eye in a stained glass window staring down at Father Flynn, as if passing judgment?  Gee, that’s subtle.  Dutch angles?  Fucking Dutch angles right out of “Bride of Frankenstein,” peppered throughout scene after scene, to show the characters’ discomfort in each other’s presence I suppose.  I mean, really?  Visual cues like that are more distracting than anything, especially when those distractions kill any momentum the great performances might’ve been carrying.  I haven’t seen the play, but I imagine the play just plain works better than the same material in film form.  And of course let’s not forget Meryl Streep’s last hurrah before the credits (you know, the one that they’ll play in a little clip when her name is announced with the other four Best Actress nominees before the winner is announced) – that final line that comes out of nowhere and safely ensconces “Doubt” right back into Oscar bait status, just when I was starting to get pleasantly surprised by how deep this movie could’ve been.  “Doubt’s” a good movie, no doubt about it ( 😛 ), but even while tackling an issue as sensitive as it does, it just doesn’t take enough risks to be anything truly special, choosing instead to appeal to those old fogeys at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and be forgotten in a year or two like all the other winners of 8 gazillion Academy Awards.


3 comments so far

  1. Allison on

    I only read a few sentences to get the gist, and I assume that your 7.5/10 while more generous than me is about the same rating I gave it at 7/10, since you are always so generous with your ratings or maybe bc I am stingy. Nonetheless, I think Doubt took plenty of risks, it just didn’t go anywhere that it needed to go, wherever that may have been.

    Well, it was semi-entertaining. I guess that’s the best we can expect from movies these days. I’d recommend Last Chance Harvey as an alternative. I hope to blog about it tomorrow or something.

  2. Simon M. on

    always so generous, eh? Wait’ll you see the score I gave Towelhead 😉

  3. Allison on

    Hmm, come to think of it, Towelhead should have made my top 10, just to tick people off. Not that anyone would be ticked off by it. I can’t send my parents my top 10 anymore at least.

    So, what was your problem with it?

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