Review of Doubt


Movie Review: "Doubt" --

Rating: PG-13 (thematic material)
Length: 104 minutes
Release Date: December 25, 2008
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Genre: Drama/Mystery
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

"Doubt" is set in 1964, a year after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That event rocked a country that was already on shaky ground because of the changes going on in the world. There was doubt everywhere, both about the present and about the future. Naturally, writer/director John Patrick Shanley set his story during that era.

The action takes place at St. Nicholas Catholic School in the Bronx. It is a church and school in one. The parish is run by Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who is fairly progressive, especially by the standards of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), who is the principle of the school. She runs the school with an iron fist, with both the students and her fellow nuns terrified of her.

Sister Aloysius doesn't seem to be rattled by the change all around her outside because there is no such change going on inside the convent walls. She is very old school, even using a fountain pen instead of the modern ballpoint pens that are so much easier to use. The children also use the same outdated pens, making their work last much longer than it should. The nuns all wear black and cover their faces and heads completely in contrast with some nuns who still wore black but were not quite as covered up. Such change is inexplicable to Sister Aloysius, and she will have none of it in her convent or school.

She intensely dislikes Father Flynn, and he definitely knows it. In one scene, he is out in the yard playing with the students and spots her eyeing him from upstairs. He shows the slightest hint of a smile and says, "The dragon looks hungry today." A dragon is probably an apt description for Sister Aloysius, who would like nothing more than to breathe fire onto Father Flynn.

A young and extraordinarily naïve nun, Sister James (Amy Adams) sees Father Flynn inviting the only African-American student at the school into a private meeting with him in the rectory. The boy looks somewhat alarmed upon his return to her class, and she swears she smells wine on his breath. She of course reports her suspicions to Sister Aloysius, who looks thrilled at the prospect of destroying Father Flynn's career.

Today, people know that back in the 1960s, there were priests who molested young boys all over the world. Those cases were always covered up or swept under the rug. In 1964, though, priests were not under suspicion yet. They were men of God who were trusted implicitly, which only helped fuel the abuse. Sisters James and Aloysius think that if the report Father Flynn for being inappropriate with the young boy, something will be done.

This movie could have easily turned into a film about the church's ugly history of sexual abuse cover-ups. Instead, it is one about doubt, hence the title. Sister James begins to doubt that what she saw was inappropriate. After talking to the young boys mother, Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis), there is more doubt. Evidence is presented to viewers that would implicate Father Flynn. Then, just as quickly, evidence that would exonerate him is also presented. This is what makes "Doubt" great. Audience members are given certain facts but not led to believe one story or the other. Instead, they have to figure out for themselves just who may or may not be guilty.

Streep is in her usual fine form, as is Adams as a nun who might just be afraid of her own shadow. Hoffman has already established himself as one of the best actors of his generation, and he goes toe-to-toe with the legendary Streep here, never missing a beat. So few actors can say that they have held their own against her, but Hoffman can after this film.

The truly stunning performance, though, comes from Davis as the embattled mother. In particular is one scene with Streep where she actually manages to outshine the Oscar winner.. Though she lost the Academy Award that year to Penelope Cruz, nobody who has seen "Doubt" will have any doubt she deserved the win. In fact, this is the only thing not in doubt about "Doubt," a movie that does not give clear answers to much of anything. It forces the audience to make a decision. Is Father Flynn guilty or the victim of Sister Aloysius' hate? Perhaps only Shanley himself knows.

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