What would you do if you were accused of a devastating offense?
And what would you do if your accuser was without evidence but was utterly convinced of your guilt? Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who employs humor and anger with equal skill) of Saint Nicholas Church School finds himself in such an unenviable position, having been accused by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (the adept Meryl Streep) of involving himself in an inappropriate relationship with an altar boy. And she will not back down.
What should we really fear?
Doubt begins with an enjoyable “slice of life” opening as people are preparing for Mass, and the slow but intentional pacing of this scene lends the setting a great sense of humanness, which will be very handy later. The story takes place in a not too distant past where President Kennedy’s assassination still tends to weigh heavily on the American mind, and it is indeed the resulting doubt that serves as the topic of the first sermon heard in the movie. Despair hurts, we are told, but that doubt and despair can and should bond people together–but how much worse is it for a person to go through these things alone, isolated from his fellow man?
At this point all is well enough in the school, as well as can be expected: Father Flynn is preaching, but instead of listening intently, some children are talking to one another and getting a good head-smack by Sister Aloysius for their efforts. (To another child who happens to have his head resting on the next pew, she whispers for him to STRAIGHTEN in a way that’s both frightening and awe-inspiring. Her phenomenal acting remains a constant throughout the film.)
Father Flynn is a fun-loving priest who has no issue with making restrained but lighthearted jokes, and he’s more than happy to be friends with members of his congregation, particularly the younger set. One particular altar boy, Donald Miller (a “Negro” student who is occasionally addressed as such), has few friends but enjoys Flynn’s company and wants to be a priest himself someday.
In a microcosmic society where traditions of old sometimes engage newer ideas of thought very violently (many students, both boys and girls, act more or less like goofy modern children, much to Sister Aloysius’ disapproval), Miller becomes a sort of odd link because of his isolation. It likewise seems odd that the story doesn’t really prioritize him and how he sees his situation: his “development” seems most often to focus on what the people around him say and do on his behalf. While his backstory has a degree of depth, it nonetheless feels important enough that the way the film develops his character from his eyes seems inadequate.
Innocent on the surface
More happily, an extended slice-of-life segment shows Sister James (yes, that is her name, and she is played wonderfully by Amy Adams) teaching a history class as Sister Aloysius monitors the young students so closely that she disapproves of a simple hair barrette. The two ladies’ very distinct behavioral patterns, one quirky and the other strict but well-intentioned, complement each other exceptionally here, and the actresses often do a marvelous job of establishing their own personalities and each other’s by their mannerisms alone, such as certain glances or subtle yet clear facial expressions. Even some characters’ occasional losses for words are thoroughly convincing.
The children themselves, fine actors and actresses all, are eventually shown engaging in other fun activities such as basketball and secular dancing, and the adults aren’t afraid to enjoy themselves at times, either. (One of the sisters is eating chicken chow mein! More of a concern is that Father Flynn is sometimes seen smoking.)
So why was Father Flynn telling a sermon about doubt, Sister Aloysius wonders. She herself tends to doubt the seeming innocence of others’ actions, and she assumes a greater and often negative meaning for many things: that boy with the nosebleed induced it so he could go home, for example. And there was surely a significance behind that sermon topic.
On that note Aloysius eventually begins to question the possibility of an inappropriate relationship between Flynn and an altar boy, which the movie treats very tactfully until the very end. Why did this boy have alcohol on his breath? (Even Sister James notices it, and that’s not the only strange thing she notices.) Why has he been behaving so peculiarly? As the two sisters discuss the possibilities and their implications, the movie’s tension noticeably increases to the point of hardly being bearable. It is here that Doubt becomes a wonderful sort of thriller, almost a very personal “horror” movie where the primary fear is not one so as straightforward as the taking of life.
Back and forth
The movie introduces this change of tone very slowly and carefully, however, such that it still has room for more lighthearted segments. Father Flynn is so fun-loving that he doesn’t mind having secular songs in a forthcoming Christmas pageant: more to the point, after an interesting deconstruction of the song “Frosty the Snowman,” Flynn talks about wanting the church and likely the Church to adapt to modern society. This manifests itself in a discussion about whether to allow a black boy to be out in front in a pageant. Impressively one character wants to give the boy no special treatment, whether positive or negative, but instead wants the boy to be treated like everyone else.
Equally impressive is how Streep performs her “interrogations” when the story returns to Flynn and the question of what he was doing having private meetings with certain students. Flynn, not really doing much to conclusively help his case, dances around the subject while making excuses. Sisters Aloysius’ and James’ own responses to this affect their character development for the rest of the film, and they come with significant consequences for the Saint Nicholas church.
Father Flynn manages to be a very likeable character, as his personality, while suitably intolerant of wrongdoing (including gossip!), is full of humane sympathy and warmth, such as when he shows genuine concern for one character’s sick relative. Amusingly he tells a girl who reveals her love for another student that she should be the one to take the first step to build her relationship. Sister Aloysius shows her “humanness” in her own ways, giving in to listening to a transistor radio she confiscated from a student earlier in the movie. Poor Sister James takes the growing conflict the hardest, developing a stern edge in her classroom that quickly affects the students even when she apologizes.
Not always careful
So where does healthy concern become unreasonable distrust? After Donald Miller’s mother is brought in for questioning, her statement of what her child should do about the various negative situations he (being black) is going through is … to hold out until June, when he graduates. Viola Davis’ performance is emotionally restrained yet powerful in its own way, but her actual character seems unwilling to really “stand up” for her son, even going so far as to come across like a victim-blamer at times. (Explaining these would classify as a major spoiler, but some of the what-then problems that arise from these aren’t really dealt with in the film.)
Aloysius, meanwhile, has gotten carried away with herself, and she doesn’t really have a plan for what to do with a mother she essentially called to the principal’s office. While her actions themselves steadily become more and more unreasonable, she really does make the well-being of the church and its people a priority. Her cold personality ensures that her best intentions are often poorly demonstrated, however. (SPOILERS) One major fault of logic she shows, though it’s hardly unheard of in real life, is that given the things she is accusing Father Flynn of doing, she says he must request a transfer … which means that if Flynn is guilty, other students elsewhere will be in danger. (Spoilers end here.)
Her character development, supported by excellent writing and Meryl Streep’s flawless performance, is at once painful and amazing to watch. She is not a completely heartless individual, and one particular moment of hers at film’s end must be seen and remembered. Amy Adams’ portrayal of Sister James is every bit as wonderful, though its greatness often lies in what is not said, and all of this is set to Howard Shore’s wonderfully atmospheric score and backed by beautiful interior and exterior shots. The scenery and Catholic architecture are gorgeous.
Powerful, if a bit simple.
Doubt is a movie that handles a Catholic abuse scandal in a tactful and mostly subtle manner, but it sometimes oversimplifies other aspects of its subject matter. Racism is very limited, generally on display in those rare moments when the story explicitly calls for it, and the people portrayed as engaging in it are otherwise childish but not consistently malicious toward any one specific group.
Certain other character revelations in the main plot bring forth major questions of primary responsibility and “ends and means” solutions that are really not addressed in the film. That being stated, this is still an excellent film that is definitely worth seeing, and the overall message of the story is very clear, however: sometimes taking one’s own doubt for granted can be a deeply dangerous thing.