Kevin's Review: Doubt - A Drama of Unquestionable Value
by Kevin Powers
December 12, 2008
Clearly defined lines between good and evil are the floorplans for most dramas. Even if we don't discover these boundaries by the end of a film, ultimately knowing these delineations help us process a story much easier. It gives us clarity and closure. But total uncertainty can also prove a cinematic comfort - that is if the characters causing the confusion are as well executed as they are in Doubt. Though not remarkable across the board, John Patrick Shanely's play-turned-film is pound-for-pound the best acted film of 2008, with riveting performances from Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis.
Sister Aloysius (Streep) is principal of the school and all-around "dragon lady", protector of tradition and opponent of gum chewing and ballpoint pens. Father Flynn (Hoffman) on the other hand favors modernization of the church and a closeness with the students. The two are at odds when Sister James (Adams) confesses that she observed her student, Donald, return upset from a mid-class visit to Father Flynn. Little further evidence is needed for Sister Aloysius to proclaim, "it has happened." Though it's 1964 and pedophilia cases within the church weren't as well known, Sister Aloysius has experience with the type of man she believes Father Flynn to be. And as she proceeds to investigate, her stance that it is her job "to outshine the fox in cleverness" brings forth a marveling storm of emotion and conflict.
Streep proves just as fierce and powerful in a habit as she did in Hermes (in Devil Wears Prada), while Hoffman serves as the worthiest of adversaries. At one point Father Flynn states he can fight her, to which Sister Aloysius replies in the most fantastic disinterested yet confident manner, "you will loose" - a simple statement that embodies the convinced, opposing forces.
Cast any other way, the film might have been a dull, frustrating game of ping-pong given the film's slow-boil pacing and lack of outright answers. Doubt's value is to be found in the interchange between characters. Witnessing the conversations between Streep and Hoffman or the exceptional confession of Mrs. Muller (Davis), the boy-in-question's mother, or Sister James professing her fondness for Frosty the Snowman, prove just as explosive and engrossing as any special effects sequence. If you prize artful conversations and intricate deliveries, then Doubt might very well be the best film of 2008. Personally, I could watch this cast go on for days, and found Streep vs Hoffman near the equivalent of a UFC title fight.
Doubt's other elements, however, prove less intriguing. While I can't speak to Shanely's stage execution of the story, his treatment of the film here is pretty unremarkable. The pacing, cinematography and direction, for instance, are all pretty ordinary. That isn't wholly surprising, since there's not a lot of activity in the film to stylistically render, but you do get the sense that the film is a tad lopsided. Virtually all of Doubt takes place in a handful of locations in the school, wherein characters simply talk. There are no scandalous scenes between Father Flynn and the boy, accessory sequences to bolster the feeling of environment, or physical altercations that might raise you out of your seat.
Doubt is a subtle battle that pivots on the lips of its cast; this is probably why it's done so well as a play. If you can appreciate the power behind a Streep stare or the dexterity it takes Hoffman to meet her head on, then there's little uncertainty in its value. And despite holding back answers, which some moviegoers might find frustrating, the film is a rich and thought-provoking experience that nevertheless feels complete.