Doubt (2008)

Synopsis: A Catholic school principal questions a priest’s ambiguous relationship with a troubled young student.

For more info and to watch the trailer, click here:

Who chose it: Leah

Why I chose it: It featured several of my favorite actors and the trailer and plot were both intriguing.

Brent’s Review:

Doubt is terminal, or so John Patrick Shanley’s film “Doubt” might lead us to believe. In this story, doubt is characterized as weakness or even a loss of one’s own identity.

We begin with a homily by Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on the topic of – you guessed it – doubt. We see that not only is Father Flynn a captivating orator, but he is also friendly and has a good rapport with both boys who serve in mass and the sisters with whom he teaches primary education. Unconvinced, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) wonders aloud at dinner, “Is Father Flynn in doubt? Is he concerned that someone else is in doubt?” Sister Aloysius is stern and fierce – she is not politely questioning, she is insinuating.

Caught in the middle is Sister James, who one might call naïve or kind depending on their worldview. She fundamentally disagrees with Sister Aloysius’ pedagogy, but she seeks her counsel when her suspicions of Father Flynn arise. The inciting incident appears particularly damning on the surface: Father Flynn calls an altar boy to the rectory during class for a private meeting, whereupon returning the boy has alcohol on his breath and is clearly shaken. Later, Sister James sees Father Flynn return an undershirt to the boy’s locker. Thus begins an investigation by Sisters Aloysius and James into the matter.

Shanley’s script is confident and poised: he knows when to move quickly and when to take his time. Adapted from a stage play, “Doubt” moves effortlessly from conflict to conflict and revelation to revelation. No word is spoken out of place and no scene is without purpose. In particular, the narrative rocks gently back and forth, allowing the two primary leads – Hoffman and Streep – to occupy both protagonist and antagonist roles at different times in the film. Shanley controls this material with such confidence that I can easily pay it the highest compliment I can give a film: it is truly as good as it could’ve been.

Watching this film, I couldn’t help but feel a great sadness watching Phillip Seymour Hoffman embody Father Flynn. Hoffman’s death came at his highest moment in his career and he is one of the few actors who could truly hold his own with anyone on screen, including Meryl Streep (whose own performance is outstanding). Hoffman was one of Hollywood’s most gifted leading males – to see this performance is to both see that and appreciate it.

So back to the original observation: in “Doubt” the idea of doubt is terminal. It will infect any preconceived ideas one held and spread until it kills the idea at the root. It will tarnish the image of a once-loved priest. And if your identity is rooted in certainty, it may very well kill your identity, too. I ask: what, then, of the spiritual teachers in the Christian faith who espouse doubt as a tool of deepening religious conviction? For Shanley, doubt isn’t functional; as a Christian, I would disagree.

Leah’s Review:

When a film can make you think deeply, it’s probably well-made. When a film can challenge, unnerve you, and leave you pondering it for days- it’s probably exceptionally well-made. Much like Martin Scorcese’s “Silence” (which we watched earlier this year), John Patrick Shanley’s 2008 Oscar-nominated “Doubt” takes its audience on a journey through spiritual battles and personal struggle and leaves you wondering.

The highlight of “Doubt” is certainly its acting. Seasoned actors like the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and the always adaptable Meryl Streep are thoroughly convincing in their roles. Less-experienced and, at the time, newcomers Amy Adams and Viola Davis hold their own as the supporting characters (Davis who is able to practically steal the whole show in her 10 minutes of screen time). The film is dialogue heavy- but it is impossible to be bored with such powerful and commanding performances.

The brilliance of this film is not only its acting, but how the story is set. “Doubt” opens with shots of a neighborhood in the Bronx, New York on a bleak and dreary morning. This gloomy feeling continues throughout the film as most of the colors used are shades of gray, black, and muted greens. This gives the viewer an uneasy feeling from the get-go, adding to the sense of uncertainty throughout the entirety of the film. I thought the heavy use of black and white was a clever choice (many of the characters in the film are nuns so this make sense), as it gives you an underlying sense of right and wrong with no room for ambiguity. Interestingly enough, the most vibrant scenes take place in the church sanctuary when Father Flynn is speaking to his congregation.

What is also interesting is how the movie sets the audience up for biased point of view. From the trailer to the film’s synopsis, the audience expects a story about a priest who has taken advantage of a young male student. We are automatically under the assumption that this is what has happened, and much like Sister Aloysius, have no doubts that Father Flynn is a guilty man. But as the story unfolds, we see that Father Flynn is a kind priest, a good mentor to all students, and a charismatic preacher. He’s extremely likable and we find ourselves wondering if such a good man is capable of something so horrendous. The same is true for Sister Aloysius- because of her unshakable certainty and her demand for what is right, we naturally feel inclined to trust that her convictions are based in the truth. But as the movie gets closer to its conclusion, we start to wonder if we should feel that way.

As with the aforementioned “Silence”, the thing about “Doubt” that makes it such a masterful film is that it doesn’t tell you what to think or believe. And (slight spoiler) it doesn’t even reveal the truth to its audience- leaving the viewer to determine (as well as doubt) that truth for themselves.

Next up: A film featured on many “Top 10” lists, “Schindler’s List” won seven Oscars and was one of Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed pictures. This will be Leah’s first time watching it and she is preparing herself for the 3 hour-long emotional roller-coaster.

Peace out, kids.


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