Meryl Streep in Doubt
Meryl Streep in Doubt

The first line of attack against Doubt by its detractors is that a certain staginess has carried over from director John Patrick Shanley’s original Pulitzer Prize-winning play. It’s true, the performances are a little too broad, the dialogue is a bit too precise and the plot and characters are a little too neatly laid out to feel natural, but when your stage is patrolled by Meryl Streep and she’s in top form, “staginess” isn’t such a bad thing after all.

It’s 1964, and Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the stern and conservative principal of a Catholic High School in the Bronx. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, the progressive new preacher who’d like the school to lighten up. Times are changing and he’d rather rule through friendliness than rule through fear.

The two of course are instantly at odds and when questions arise about the uncomfortably close relationship that develops between Father Flynn and one of the altar boys, Sister Aloysius sees her chance. Though there are perfectly reasonable and innocent explanations for the preacher’s behavior, something more sinister could also be afoot. Already suspicious of and threatened by this outsider with his big new ideas, Sister Aloysius favors (and fans) the idea that Father Flynn is a pedophile and she sets about building a case against him.

Caught in this crossfire is Sister James (Amy Adams), a naïve teacher at the school who looks up to Sister Aloysius but who is taken by the charismatic Father Flynn. Also stuck in the middle is the altar boy Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II). As the school’s sole black student, Donald is harassed by his classmates and he turns to the friendly preacher as the only one who will accept him.

It’s a setup fraught with dramatic potential and there are several obvious and unimaginative ways it could have played out, but Shanley is more interested in willfully defying your expectations and preconceptions. The winds of change are blowing and the forces of uncertainty and conviction are at odds with one another. Nothing is quite as simple as it seems despite everyone’s desire to make it so and Shanley thrusts his characters into this narrative turmoil until they emerge changed. How you feel about them in the end is much different than what you thought of of them when they were introduced.

It’s tempting to assume from the trailer that Streep will play a bitter, one-note harridan squaring off against the more likeable and modern Father Flynn. That’s definitely the springboard for the story’s conflict, but this isn’t a simple case of old versus new. There are many elements at play and all the characters are much more rounded than you first assume.

Streep tears into her performance with an energetic relish, prowling in and out of the frame like a bilious shark, pale skin against black habit. It’s the kind of performance that calls attention to itself, but you’re glad for it because it’s a wonder to watch. She doesn’t disappear into the character, but the other way around. It’s an illusion where the magician somehow shows you how the trick is done, but amazes you with it anyway. Though Streep threatens to go over the top, ultimately she gives the most full-blooded and fiercely entertaining performance of the year – yes, even more fun than Heath Ledger’s Joker. It’s the kind of performance that makes you smile to watch.

True, her performance is outsized, but it’s also surprisingly layered and nuanced. Sister Aloysius isn’t just hard, she’s actually very funny and Streep gets to display her knack for a comic line one sometimes forgets she possesses. Nor is she just a shrew. Though she’s lost the human touch, she’s a sensitive woman hardened by years of getting by in the shadow of the boy’s club that runs the church. As shaded by Streep, she is brittle but also at times sympathetic.

For his part, Philip Seymour Hoffman more than holds his own in direct combat with Streep on screen. His character is the more likeable to begin with, but he reveals a darkness as the film progresses whether he ultimately turns out to be a pedophile or not. If Hoffman doesn’t quite get the attention he deserves for this film, it’s mostly because his character simply isn’t as much fun. His performance is more internal and closed off than Streep’s. He simmers rather than boils, but he’s no less powerful or convincing.

Also worth noting is Amy Adams. Kind of a wispy actress to begin with, she risks getting blown off the screen by her co-stars, but she’s perfectly suited to the role of Sister James. She seems meek at first yet reveals a surprising backbone when pushed. Sort of the audience surrogate, Adams makes you feel Sister James’ confusion and uncertainty as she’s toyed with by Aloysius and Flynn. A little unsure of her own instincts, she is forced to choose between two steel-willed individuals whom she respects and admires and so are we.

Finally there is Viola Davis as the altar boy’s mother. Her part is smaller but no less memorable than any of the others. Like her co-stars but in a shorter amount of screen time, Davis manages to upend your expectations and transform before your eyes. Arriving on the scene late in the story but fully formed, she injects (along with Adams) a welcome dose of warmth and humanity. She gives the audience something to cling to while the other characters slug away at one another.

Deploying this menagerie of fully fleshed out characters and taking full advantage of Roger Deakins’ wintry cinematography and Howard Shore’s urgent score, writer/director Shanley pokes and prods the gray area between certainty and the doubt of the film’s title. How much can we ever really know and how much damage can we do whether we’re armed with knowledge or not?

Though set firmly within the Catholic religion, religious faith isn’t Shanley’s direct target; it’s just the rigid framework against which his drama starkly plays itself out. If faith can’t lead to the truth, then what hope do us sinners have? It’s a question we ask ourselves more and more in an increasingly complex world and Shanley refuses to provide easy answers.

As interesting as his moral questions are however, they too are finally just a backdrop to the superbly entertaining feat of acting turned in by Ms. Streep. Like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood last year, she commands your attention in every scene she’s in and she looms as a presence in those she isn’t. What’s more, she seems to have inspired her cast-mates to rise to the challenge and the whole ensemble illuminates the screen. Let those with too narrow a vision of cinematic drama cry foul. In the end, all that matters is what works. Doubt not only works, it turns out to be one of the best films of the year.

Doubt. USA 2008. Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley from his original play. Cinematography by Roger Deakins. Edited by Dylan Tichenor. Music composed by Howard Shore. Costumes designed by Ann Roth. Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster II. 1 hour 44 minutes. MPAA Rated PG-13 for thematic material. 4.5 stars (out of 5)

48 Responses to “Review: Doubt (2008) **** 1/2”

  1. Terrific review Craig. In your finely modulated reviews you invariably deliver a sentence or two that I take the time to pleasurably savor before moving on. Here are the ones that I particularly enjoyed in the present one:

    “Streep tears into her performance with an energetic relish, prowling in and out of the frame like a bilious shark, pale skin against black habit.”

    “He simmers rather than boils…”

    “pokes and prods the gray area between certainty and the doubt of the film’s title. How much can we ever really know and how much damage can we do whether we’re armed with knowledge or not?”

  2. Music to my Doubt-looking-forward-to ears! I’m so glad, because most early reviewers really were raining on my hopeful parade, but now my excitement is rekindled! wOOt.

  3. Oh how I loved Doubt! Really nice review. Very few films this year have been so powerful. Though Shanley “opens” the play up a little bit, I thought his filmic touches were nice.

    Doubt reminded of a great Tennessee Williams adaptation like Street Car, the little seen A View from the Bridge, or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; the staginess is there, but who cares? The performances and script carry the film.

  4. As a fallen Catholic and a huge fan of Meryl, I am counting down the seconds to Friday night.

    Unfortunately, we got snow. I had better be able to leave the house.

    Or someone’s gonna pay very dearly….

  5. Fine review Craig. Like sartre, I especially like the “bilious shark” line.

  6. Terrific review, Craig, and after hearing about all the negative reaction to this movie it’s great to get another point of view. I’m glad to hear that already there are people here at LiC, people whose opinions I trust, that have enjoyed this one.

    Obviously I’ve been sold on the cast for this movie since day one. I’m looking forward to seeing this.

  7. I’m quite surprised, Craig, that you gave this film such a high rating. I haven’t seen it, but on the basis of the trailer and what I’ve read, I’ve been bracing myself for a handful of very good performances in an outdated film no better than good overall.

    I do value your judgment, however, and have moved this film up on my list of those to see sooner rather than later.

    Streep and Hoffman are the drawing cards for me.

  8. Thanks guys. Anytime you like the words, I think it’s a testament to the film. Some movies it’s a struggle to hammer out 500 words and others it’s hard to shut up and I feel an extra resonsibility to do them justice.

    Pierre, I have to say I’m a little surprised myself at how much I liked this one. Exceded expectations may have juiced my enthusiasm for it a bit more than a movie I go in expecting to love (eg Che)

    Sam K is right, Shanley does take advantage of the medium and he opens up the play a bit. There are more characters shown and it just feels a little bigger.

    And so what if it’s not? How many of us have a chance to see Streep and Hoffman on stage anyway?

    In the end for me it really boils down to Streep. I literally found myself grinning while watching her do her thing. I always like her, but I don’t gush about her every performance. This one I gush.

    I’m about to dig into other people’s reviews on this one and from the buzz I’ve picked up I really worry my ass will be hanging out, but I stand by it. I think fans of Streep especially will enjoy it.

    (and I’m glad to hear an actor back me up on this movie)

    Miranda, I can still never predict how you’re going to roll with a movie, but once again I’m going to go out on a limb and guess you’ll like this one. I have my own brush with Catholicism and the thing I liked about Shanley’s approach is that he didn’t go negative really. He seems to have a love/hate relationship with his upbringing, but there’s more affection than bitterness.

    And did I mention Streep rules?

  9. Well, Shanley did not really open this up very much to be honest. A few outdoor scenes with falling leaves during a windy day is not really opening up anything, but when one considers that it was originally presented on a Broadway stage, anything is ‘opening up.’ I liked the film too and yesterday revised my grade to 4/5. I have never taken issue with ‘staginess’ as many other cinematic purists have, as to ‘open things up’ would compromise the essence of the material. I have always thought the staginess objection was a convenient way to dismiss a film by someone who may not have been enamored of the content or teh material.
    Craig is quite right to celebrate Streep. She was truly extraordinary, and her diversity within a single calendar year, when she delivered an admirable turn in MAMA MIA!, really shows what a consumate performer she is. Hoffman, Davis and Adama all deliver exceptional performances as well.

    As far as DOUBT being one of the BEST films of the year Craig, well I’m afraid to say I think you’ve oversold it here. It’s good, but it not THAT good. To be truthful, outside of LIC, the film has been getting very mediocre reviews everywhere. But your PASSION is the main issue here, and it’s infectious and it spured you on to write one of your most superlative reviews ever recorded at this site.

    Now, that’s the ticket.

  10. I’m just going to ditto Pierre’s comment, and then all the others that doffed their hats to your writing. So much of it is in the expectations going in. Now you’ve gone and played with mine.

  11. Sam, I don’t think Shanley opened it up any more than he had to. This isn’t 2001: A Space Odyssey and I don’t have any issue with that.

    And regardless of what the critical consensus is, this is certainly among the best of the year for me. I’m not overselling it in the slightest. You might disagree with me as I disagree with you about both Visitor and Slumdog, but there is no…er…doubt in my mind about it being one of my favorite movies this year. I knew it walking out of the theater.

    As for JB’s expectations: I take back what I said. Streep was wretched. I can’t believe she has the temerity to call herself an actress! :)

  12. Well, I love Shanley anyway, Craig.

    I was a big Moonstruck fan from the time I saw it on TV as a kid (that’s SOME writing…) and I’m one of the few people on the planet who actually really digs JOE VS, THE VOLCANO.

    I’m very interested to see what he’s going to be doing with this material. Catholicism is the defining force of my #1 film of 2008, BRIDESHEAD. (Yeah, I know, I know…) So films like that tend to hit me HARD.

    As far as the goddess Meryl is concerned, Craig, she DEFINITELY rules. More than rules.

    She owns the entire acting universe. Single handedly…


    So now you know what’s it’s like when someone questions “passion.” Of course I am not implying that you have questioned my passion on anything, but I’ve heard more than once at this site and elsewhere from more than a few people that I’ve overated or overeacted to something, even when I had 96% of America’s critics on my side. (i.e. THE VISITOR and SLUMDOG, now that you mentioned it)

    I thought that my final two sentences in large measure refuted what I had said previously.

    To repeat what I said earlier. I liked DOUBT. It was a powerful drama and it earns 4 of 5 with me. It won’t get in my top ten because I feel there are 10 better movies. But as always, different eyes and ears come to different conclusions, and that’s fair enough. It’s not that we’re really all that apart on this, it’s just the measure of love.

  14. And Craig, as far as Shanley “opening it up” I agreed (as

  15. I got got off by the server……….I meant to say: “I agreed it didn’t really NEED to be opened up at the risk of compromising its essence. I have always fought against critics who took umberage with socalled “staginess.” i.e. I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, TEAN AND SYMPATHY, SLEUTH, etc., etc. DOUBT doesn’t lose points from me at all on that issue.

  16. I can’t comment on the merits of Doubt, but I can assure Miranda I actually concur with her on Joe Vs. the Volcano. It’s flawed, sure, sometimes painfully so, but there’s also some awfully funny stuff in there, great art direction (especially in Joe’s office), Tom Hanks when he was still new to us all and Meg Ryan in several roles, back when she was cute and funny instead of just seeming desperate for past glory. And I think of it whenever I price luggage or fly over large bodies of water, so you know it’s got staying power. : )

    I do find it really funny that the same guy who directed that is also responsible for Doubt. That’s been amusing me for months.

  17. Hahah Sam, sorry if I sounded defensive, but you know what it’s like to be out on a limb a little bit and surrounded by skeptics. I suspect there will be a small handful of films on each of our top 10s that we ourselves wouldn’t pick, but that we both like anyway.

    Miranda, I’ve heard a number of people expressing enthusiasm for Joe vs. The Volcano. I’ve actually never seen it because Meg Ryan is fingernails on a chalkboard to me and this movie came out during Tom Hanks’ wretched period. Having said that, I love Moonstruck much more than any guy probably should.

    It’s funny JB, exept for her freakish lips, I like Meg Ryan now more than I ever did. Her cute phase really just rubbed me the wrong way because I suspected it was completely phony. Horribly unfair, but I was just talking about irrational hatreds the other day…. Turns out I have a few of them!

  18. Craig, you the best.

  19. WOW, JB. I didn’t think that anyone liked JVTV except for me.

    It’s shamelessly romantic and, except for that ending, it really goes in many directions that you wouldn’t ever automatically anticipate.

    Nice to know someone is on the same page.

    Craig, I used to feel EXACTLY the same way about Meg Ryan. FOR YEARS.

    Funny. Now that she’s not as popular (and I can actually tolerate her) I can see that she has real talent. She plays three different characters completely believably. Girl actually has some decent acting skills.

    One day you should check it out. I’m sure that there are at least a couple of us here that would be interested in your take on it.

  20. I’ve been meaning to have a look at it. There are a number of movies that turn up on people’s “most underrated” lists that I feel like I should see.

    I really did warm up to Meg. I just wish she hadn’t destroyed her lips.

    There was a movie last year that was mostly wretched…In the Land of Women. Hated it, but she was actually surprisingly good.

  21. I never question anyone’s passion, but least of all the illustrious Craig Kennedy! Craig could write an effusive ****1/2 review of The Love Guru and I’d give the film a shot.

    To parrot so many others here, I”ve been looking forward this based simply on the strength of the teaming of Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Throw in Hollywood’s new princess and Viola Davis for good measure, and this is a film whose cast demands one take a look.

    And I come into this from an interesting place as I was with Craig on The Visitor and with Sam on Slumdog Millionaire.

    As an Anglo heavily and unabashedly drawn to and quite studious of Catholicism, I always keep in mind C.S. Lewis and Tolkein! Another reason to look forward to this.

  22. I liked Doubt. The staginess was relatively less bothersome compared to other adaptations. But I thought Hoffman was off, and I thought the confrontations between him and Streep were too actorly. That said, I liked Streep’s performance in general.

  23. If it’s any consolation, Craig, Meg Ryan has always left me as limp as an angle worm after a heavy rain.

  24. Alexander, if you go in focused on the performances, I don’t think you can go wrong. I have to agree it’s not the most cinematic of films to come down the line, but that didn’t bother me at all.

    KB, I didn’t have a problem with PSH. As I said above I think it was a more internal performance and his character is (by design) much harder to pin down and figure out, but I thought he was great.

  25. “limp as an angle worm after a heavy rain”

    hahaha…funny, that’s also how she makes me feel

  26. In thinking about it more, mayybe it’s a case of Streep being very good. i say that, because, for one thing, I felt fairly certain that the priest did it. Maybe that’s a reflection of the dominance of Streep’s performance and the off-ness of Hoffman. Maybe not. I overheard a conversation from a couple other critics where one said the film seems much more definite about the priest’s guilt than the play. That is sort of how I felt about it.

  27. ***spoilers*** if I had to pick one, I’d say Hoffman’s character did it, but there’s enough ‘doubt’ so that we really don’t know for certain. He does act guilty, but it’s easy to do when you’re accused with something.

  28. I saw Doubt early this evening (Christmas Eve). I have to agree with you, Craig, this is a very good film — better than I expected even though you’d suggested it was indeed very good.

    To me, the cast was uniformly very good, even the lesser players including the children. I think it’s a little unfair that Viola Davis is being singled out at the expense of Amy Adams. My guess is that the role itself stands out.

    Though I’d been a little wary of “actorly” fight scenes between Streep and Hoffman, seeing everything in context dispelled those fears. It was all believable and effective.

    So-called staginess didn’t enter my mind during the entire film. I feel that the “opening up” that occurred was well done and well integrated with the film. Much of this appears to be related to what I consider the stellar cinematography (and that of course includes great lighting) by Roger Deakins. Shanley owes him for this one.


    We’ll never know, of course, whether the charges against Father Flynn were true. One scenario I find possible is that Flynn is innocent of the charges but resigns from his position (and apparently previous positions) out of fear that his homosexuality will become openly known (though even his sexuality is open to conjecture). In other words, rather than deal with the humiliation of such a controversy, the guy keeps moving on out of fear of guilt by association. After all, in those days one was guilty of something — anything — just for being perceived as gay.

    ******** END OF SPOILER ********* END OF SPOILER ******

  29. First of all. YEAH!!!! So nice to have one more person on my side.

    Second of all ***SPOILERS**** wow, that’s an excellent thought about Father Flynn. He could even have been found out at his previous job and that’s what he was afraid Aloysius had discovered. She couldn’t get past thoughts of him being a pedophile. ***FIN***

    And yeah, don’t talk to me about stagy. It was nothing of the sort. The cinematography had a layered quality to it…expanding the image while keeping it intimate…if that makes any sense.

    I was also concerned about the actorly fight scenes….they seemed a little too much when condensed into the trailer, but in the context of the film they worked beautifully.

    I also agree the performances were roundly terrific. Streep is elevated because I think she has the flashiest and most entertaining part. As I said above, Hoffman had a more internal part, particularly compared to the more vigorous Streep. Davis…I hate to say it because she deserves all the attention she gets…but I wonder if there isn’t the teeniest bit of reverse racism going on there. There are so few good parts for women and even fewer of those that are for minority women, the ones there are stand out. Adams I think is just the odd man out and her character is a little overshadowed by the others. She was great though.

    Anyway, I’m glad despite all my hyping you still liked it.

  30. Reverse racism? Mmmmm, I dunno. I do feel that the role stands out from the others, first of all because she’s not part of the school hierarchy but also because she embodies a different way of thinking, an alternate perspective.

    *****POTENTIAL SPOILER*******

    If the boy in question had been from a cultural milieu more like that of the schools regulars, the mother’s reaction might’ve been more receptive to Sister Aloysius’s stated suspicions. But because the mom was black, her reactions may be representative of different cultural attitudes. And because her son’s presence at the school to begin with was merely a means to an end (admission to a good high school), the mom is less interested in reacting in a way that would be more to Sister Aloysius’s liking.


  31. Fascinating discourse gentlemen of a film that I have now decided belongs in the Top Ten after a second viewing. Pierre, as always a beautiful and thought-provoking analysis. After the play you distinctly felt that the priest was innocent, but after the film you felt otherwise. I agree that it was Viola Davis’ ROLE that made here stand out more than Amy Adams.

  32. Thanks, Sam. I’m happy to hear of your ongoing appreciation of this film.

    The cinematography had a layered quality to it…expanding the image while keeping it intimate…if that makes any sense.

    It makes every bit of sense, Craig. Last year, Deakins showed us what he can achieve when given free rein on a challenging assignment (Assassination of Jesse James). Here the challenge is a narrower playing field, which allows him to concentrate his brilliance in a more focused context. The camera angles he has chosen are perfect — interesting but not overdone. Every detail of the set and lighting has been buffed and polished (literally or figuratively, as appropriate) to perfection so that the viewer is brought right into the film’s reality of space and time, right down to the shiny floor of the hallway, the windows on the display cases, the peeling paint on the poorly maintained walls, exterior shots, such as the early morning light, etc. A triumph of effort that sadly may not be recognized at Oscar time because of flashier, more expansive work in other films.


    I like the treatment (and “doubtiness”) given to the character of the blond male student, the one with the bloody nose. His presence in the film really expands the possibilities of meaning. Why does he have a bloody nose? Why does he treat the other students the way he does? Why does he react the way he does to Father Flynn? The possibilities are numerous and effect any conclusions we may draw about the main plot points.

    It may very well be that Flynn is a gay priest who, though not a pedophile, is more inclined — because of his sexuality and/or more liberal/humanistic view — to demonstrate warmth and compassion to the children. In 1964, and even now, such attentions could easily be perceived as unnatural. Of course, one can only speculate, as I said before, as to his character’s sexuality.

    Early in the film we see Sister Aloysius drawing an erroneous conclusion about the afore-mentioned blond male student on the basis of his behavior. This sets us up to realize that she may also be wrong — or at least not altogether right — about Flynn.


    In any event, the film gives us plenty to discuss.

    My guess is that critics who aren’t crazy about this film may be dissatisfied on a thematic level. Maybe some of them simply wanted a different film, one that’s more of an indictment of the Church. This could be particularly true of those who are former Catholics who have unilaterally rejected the Church.

  33. Pierre, I must say you may have really hit the nail on the head with that speculation that the “critics who aren’t crazy about this film may be dissatisfied on a thematic level…as they may have wanted a different film, one that’s more of an indictment of the Church.” Geez, I couldn’t agree more with that.

    With a second viewing this film has really come of age with me. I was wrong to state last week that Craig may have oversold it–it is wholly engrossing, and it provides for a thematic fusions of character, sociological concerns and setting. It has haunting qualities that recall Knowles “A Separate Peace” with the psychological underpinnings of its harrowing drama.

    It’s a top ten finisher for sure.

  34. Just saw this today, and I must say I liked it quite a bit. I thought the performances were fantastic, and I was glad to see that some of my fears from seeing the trailer were unfounded. I was afraid they would portray Sister Aloysious as a villain, but true to form, Streep dug deep and found her humanity. She is not a wicked character (as some have mistaken her for), but someone who comes from an older way of doing things. She truly cares for the boy and is acting in (what she thinks) are his best interests. Whether, in the end, she helped or hurt him is up for debate, based on whether or not you think Father Flynn was guilty or innocent.

    I’ve had several discussions about that with friends, and the different perspectives people come away with are fascinating. It’s one of the best things about the film (and play) for me – that sense of ambiguity. It has so many layers to be explored.

  35. Yes, Sam, Doubt does have a sort of haunting quality. It’s nicely stylized and overcomes any feeling of closed-in-edness — and I’m not just talking about leaves in the wind. When you combine this with the ambiguity that Matthew mentions, plus the performances, it’s a force of its own.

    If Milk gets nominated but not Doubt, I’ll be a little disappointed. But the reverse would be disappointing as well.

    And I hope Roger Deakins’ camera work is acknowledged, although I’m not sure of that likelihood.

  36. Deakins’ work was indeed great (I loved how the angles become increasingly skewed as the situation gets more dire), but I’m not sure if I prefer his work for this or “Revolutionary Road.”

  37. Looking forward to seeing this later in the week and finally engaging all these comments. This one looks very interesting.

  38. Revolutionary Road was certainly nicer to look at and sometimes I think that holds more sway with the Academy than anything else.

    Sam, I’m (belatedly) happy to see you coming around on Doubt a little bit. I continue to be shocked at some of the mixed reviews, but the reactions of you people (what do you mean, “YOU people??”) gives me hope that I haven’t just lost it.

    Also, I didn’t mean to take anything away from Viola Davis. She did a terrific job, but Amy Adams shouldn’t be overlooked.

    ***SPOILERS*** Pierre, I really like your take on what might be behind Father Flynn’s character. It’s funny how many people I’ve talked to who are certain that he did it. I think they’re sort of missing the point of the film. To me there were compelling reasons to believe he did do it, but no actual proof and there were plenty of reasonable answers to explain his behavior….the only stumbling block I had was the end when he panicked because Aloysius contacted his previous school, but you’ve answered that question with a perfectly reasonable answer that also fits in with some of the character’s other behaviors. ***END****

    Joel, as I said in the GT thread, I like this one more, but I’m a little uncertain how it’ll go over for you. As with Button, there are some strong criticisms of it that frankly I just don’t get. Either I’m missing something (in both cases) or critics are.

  39. *SPOILERS*

    In discussing this with a film afterward, she brought up an interesting point that she thought Flynn was guilty…but not with Walter Miller. Perhaps he had done something at his previous appointment…or had molested the blond boy instead of Miller. Sister Aloysius could have been barking up the wrong tree, but was still on to something anyway.

  40. ***more spoilers****

    That’s why I like Pierre’s idea that Flynn is gay. It would explain why he knew his days were numbered at that school if Aloysius was digging around in his past. The church might try to bury it, but they’d have to shuffle him to a new parish.

    As I said before though, you can argue he did it or didn’t do it all day long, the movie is more interested in different people’s reactions to the very same evidence. Some are convinced he did it, others don’t want to believe he did and still more don’t want to think about it at all.

  41. Fabulous review and discussion here. I just posted my own review.

    My parents just saw this themselves and they think the priest was innocent. However, many people to whom I’ve spoken are certain he was guilty.

    The ambiguity is interesting unto itself, to a significant degree, though I primarily give Shanley credit for exploring some of the sociological matters at hand.

    I do question the degree of secularness of Father Flynn’s homilies (oddly always called sermons, but perhaps that is just looking at it through the prism of the Catholicism that informs the story). The story is set in 1964, during Vatican II. Using Father Flynn’s homilies as a device is completely legitimate, though Shanley could have helped himself by simply making it clear that this was only a part of Father Flynn’s homily (with him starting with Scripture and then branching outward into antidotes, and so on). As a result of not doing this, it makes the device seem more schematic than it should while also rendering the sequences less realistic.

    Nevertheless, much of the film is exceptionally formed. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is indeed crisp; I loved Howard Shore’s understated but somewhat clamant score; and Shanley employed some very worthwhile visual motifs. Some of the symbolism goes too far and should have been excised, but much of it functions almost seamlessly as the film’s “clinging to theatrical metaphor and insularity,” as I wrote in my review, makes much of the tension eerily palpable even when the actors are not truly confronting one another.

    And I agree fully with Pierre on practically all of his observations. Amy Adams is the film’s true unsung hero in my eyes; as you state, Craig, she could have been blown off the screen but she held her own by committing to the character and her presence. Some of her dialogue made you wonder whether you should wince or laugh–like when she’s trying to play peacemaker between Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius–and she pulled it all off beautifully.

  42. I’m a godless sinner unfit for church Alexander, so the ins and outs of the service details were completely lost on me, but other than that, it sounds like we’re on the same page and I look forward to your full review.

    It irks me this film isn’t getting the critical attention it deserves.

  43. I definitely enjoyed Doubt, more for the excellent acting than the story I’m afraid, but I liked it. To me, Streep gives one of her best performances in years (which is saying something) and the rest of the cast is just fighting like mad to keep up. I agree that PSH’s more internal performance is less fireworky, but he’s still good. Adams is excellent and Viola Davis has what may be the best cameo of the entire year (technically, she’s only in one scene even though it’s stretched between two locales).

    I thought Shanley’s direction was a bit weak and predictable but Deakins’ cinematography and the excellent editing (by the esteemed Dylan Tichenor) really elevated the narrative. I was disappointed by the final act, which I think implies Flynn’s guilt a little too easily, and by the ending which lets Sister Aloysius off the hook (her own recriminations not withstanding).

    However, Pierre’s analysis is completely believable and likely true. It fits the tenor of events in the film and explains everything that happens up to the end of the film. My feeling is that Flynn isn’t guilty of molesting anyone at the school, but he is gay and fears being outed and having his career destroyed. He may have had an affair or “incident” at a previous parish he wishes to hide, but we can only assume that to be true. In reality, the only “evidence” we’re given is Sister Aloysius’ assertion that Flynn’s behavior capitulates guilt and that is the flaw of the film, in my opinion.

    In reality, Sister Aloysius is no better than those in our government that condone torture, extraordinary rendition, or the errant bombing of suspected terrorists. She acts solely on a hunch and circumstantial evidence, then declares victory because her witch hunt achieves a satisfactory conclusion. Her “doubt” is of dramatic value, but it doesn’t change the negligent destructiveness of her behavior or alleviate her offenses. As she assumes of Father Flynn, she is just as likely to repeat her crimes upon others again and again.


    Regardless, I still liked the movie quite a bit and if Davis or Streep win Oscars or Globes for their performances, I will be smiling.

  44. Homily shmomily. My guess is that they’re called sermons in the film ‘cuz most of the audience don’t know what the dickens a homily is.

  45. First of all Joel, I’m glad you picked up on the connection between Aloysius and certain current events. I later watched Shanley and the cast on Charlie Rose and at one point Shanley came right out and said these things were on his mind.

    Before I go on, I should quickly point out that, 4.5 stars and LiC Top 10 aside, I had some issues with the film that could probably be laid at Shanley’s doorstep. Little bits of over-drama and point hammering here and there. Like I’ve said here and elsewhere…could he have squeezed the word ‘doubt’ into the screenplay one more time??

    Anyway, I don’t think Shanley was trying to absolve Aloysius’ behavior in the end. If you’re certain of Flynn’s guilt, it might seem like he is, but I was never certain of his guilt at all, though I know many people were. As I said above, the one sticking point for me was Flynn’s reaction to Aloysius having called his previous parish. He was obviously guilty of SOMEthing even if it wasn’t pedophelia. He could’ve been banging the church organist for all I knew. But the brilliant Pierre’s theory suddenly snapped the last puzzle piece into place. If Flynn was gay, he’s technically not guilty of anything at all as for as the audience is concerned, but in the context of his position and the time….he had every reason to be fearful and run away.

    Having said that, it’s still very possible he is a child molester. To me, I think there is an over-eagerness with this movie to assign guilt or blame either way. The point is, we simply don’t know yet the damage has been done.

    Supposedly, in the play Flynn appeared less guilty, but in the case of the movie I just don’t think people are thinking it through enough. It’s even more powerful for its increased subtlety. What other things are we so sure of that we’re wrong about?

    And it’s all especially fascinating for me when sketched out against the black and white certainty of faith. Honestly going in I thought this was just going to be an anti-catholic movie, but really I don’t think it was and it’s better for it.

    Anyway, flaws aside, the cinematography combined with the acting and the layers of moral relevance and for me there was no question it was going to be a top 5 movie as soon as I saw it….especially because of the performances.

  46. Of all the scenes, the final one worked the least, and seemed the greatest “playwright conceit.” As in, one final twist to unload on the audience before the curtain falls. Nevertheless, Meryl Streep sold it like a champion, almost making me believe in it.

    Haha, Pierre, I am afraid you are most likely right.

  47. Yes, Craig, I agree. In fact, thinking about it further it donned on me that it’s entirely possible that my perception of Flynn’s implicit guilt late in the movie is more an effect of Streep’s amazing performance than Shanley’s script or direction. She comes on so strong and plays such a well-rounded characterization that it’s entirely possible the inherent empathy I felt for her character drew me to favor her in the narrative, even though I think Flynn is innocent of her charges.

    It’s a very strong performance in that respect. I still really like the movie and it would be a definite contender for a Top 20, but it probably won’t crack my LIC-mandated Top 10 (heh heh).

  48. There are a number of fine arguments to exclude Doubt from any reasonable top 10, but Streep elevates it for me above all flaws. I simply enjoyed the hell out of watching her do her thing.

    In retrospect Alexander, the ending twist was probably unnecessary….the point had been made (though clearly it was lost on many people…assholes) and the end was just one half step too many.

    It didn’t bother me though and it was a little extra inspiration to leave the theater thinking and asking questions rather than feeling pat in your conclusions.

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