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Overall Rating

Awesome: 5.36%
Worth A Look60.71%
Average: 30.36%
Pretty Bad: 1.79%
Total Crap: 1.79%

6 reviews, 20 user ratings

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by Erik Childress

3 stars

“What do you do when you’re not sure?” An interesting but basic question that opens John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt they can be applied to any walk of life, the least of which is probably writing a movie review. The process of thought involved in taking into account all of a film’s positives and negatives can occasionally wind up in a stalemate that often leaves us considering all sorts of tiebreakers in order to provide it the eventual positive or negative connotation. Do we forgive its flaws because it will entertain audiences or for the effort? Or does its ambition ultimately exceed its reach and leave us answering many questions that we’re never quite posed. In such a case the review tends to write itself as everything comes pouring out of my head about the film as I do some soul-searching on what is ultimately bothering me about what I had just seen. On the other hand, maybe that’s precisely want Shanley wanted.

Set in the Bronx in 1964, it’s Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) homilizing the patrons of the St. Nicholas Church School one Sunday withthat very question. Walking down the aisles is school principal and head nun, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who inflicts discipline on the children who are talking or have fallen asleep. She is not in lockstep with Flynn’s sermons and even re-poses the query to her fellow nuns, or at least what he meant by it. “It’s about doubt,” says sprightly young Sister James (Amy Adams), repeating the key word already inherent in Flynn’s lesson as if she were a schoolchild not paying attention.

Aloysius is always looking to the worst of people, particularly in the students as she gives Sister James a few tips on how to catch them when they’re up to no good. She has also told the naïve junior nun to look out for anything funny involving Father Flynn. Does putting an undershirt back into the locker of a student qualify? How about the same student, the school’s first “negro” Donald Muller (Joseph Foster II), smelling of alcohol after a private meeting at the rectory with the Father? Aloysius wastes no time in setting up a meeting with Sister James and Flynn and after some stalling, doesn’t beat around the bush in grilling him about the suspicious activity, albeit in vague accusatorial language. Flynn denies anything out of the ordinary occurred and even has a completely logical explanation for the undershirt, the alcohol and the privacy. But Aloysius is not convinced and believes everything she fears.

Words like “doubt”, “fear”, and “extraordinary” are the kind of blurred words that can easily describe the practice of religion (and maybe even win you 25 grand on the “R” word in Pyramid) but also fly within the face of one of its no-no words – “logic.” Father Flynn is representing change within the Church. At a time when the country has faced the tragedy of JFK’s assassination, he is under the practice that they should be not just leaders in the community but also reach out to become part of their congregation’s family. Aloysius’ old school mentality could be construed as a Church-and-State separation; just draw them into their message and keep them in line with fear – which, incidentally, isn’t that far off from the State side of things. It’s her own fears that come into play though with Flynn, the subject of rumors after being on his third transfer in five years. Does his message of progression come with ulterior motives on becoming more intimately involved with his parishioners? Especially students like Donald who may require more special attention.

Doubt is not particularly just another cautionary tale about the unholy rise of pedophilia within the Church, although its hard to separate its obvious accusations with all the true stories we’ve heard over the years, particularly in powerful documentaries like Twist of Faith and Deliver Us From Evil. Not that we immediately condemn Father Flynn to hell since there is not a single shred of concrete proof, but the film clearly leans in that direction with disapproving stare, lawyer-like denials and even a blink-and-you'll-miss-it suggestion that Donald wasn't the only boy affected by the priest. Like David Mamet’s Oleanna where “whatever side you take, you’re wrong” we are put both on the offensive and defensive with both combatants while Sister James is the waffling innocent for our benefit who is sent away just in time for the final battle. Aloysius’ stubbornness in the rule of order is the kind that would protect the Bible’s teachings as more than just parables to good living and yet for the nature of this story’s indifference runs counter to the kind of bureaucracy that protects potential offenders like Father Flynn, whose commitment to change may make him a victim of an aristocracy that would rather have its minions fear “fear itself” (as quoted in one of Sister James’ lessons) as the path to salvation than the true evils of the world.

These are all elements that you will take away from Doubt no matter what side of the religious, political or sensical divide you make your bed in. What’s inescapable about Doubt on film is that it is still just a play. Quality of debate notwithstanding, the structure of the story (especially in its big scenes) invite little cinematic involvement which is rarely a bother, particularly when you have a Glengarry Glen Ross or The Shape of Things where the themes become the motion and not some cheap dolly tricks. But Shanley does try to open it up in the simplest of manners, shoving in giant gusts of air to implicate “the changing of the winds” or the light bulb that keeps exploding the metaphors above Streep’s head but certainly not over ours. Despite it only being a one-act play on stage, Flynn’s trifecta of homilies come at the opportune moments to either introduce or close one act over another (one involving more wind-blowing[/i) and the subject matter takes on the less complicated and obvious meanings of an Old Testament tale for children when something a bit Newer and more adult would be more welcome.

Again this does not cast any sins amongst the actors. Streep’s Aloysius could have been just another stereotypical religious taskmaster, but few are better with finding the subtleties of a personality that give us more insight into the character than there is on the page. Hoffman is explosively good, equally his scenes of pressure and outrage with brands of tenderness that can be easily taken as either understanding or merely self-serving. Adams is better than Sister James’ role calls for as she is struggling to learn about herself while keeping the faith for all around her. Even better though is Viola Davis as Donald’s mother who (in the best written scene
) eloquently argues with Aloysius about what she knows about her son’s behavior, frosting the film’s cake with the idea that God’s image is not always born perfect in some eyes and that temptation sometimes shares equal blame. It’s a bravura scene that combined with the final struggle between Aloysius and Flynn had me leaning towards the positive. But then there’s that ending.

We remember many films from Casablanca to Some Like It Hot for their final lines; kickers that send us off on a high and has us remembering their wholes in style. Doubt, on the other hand, ends on a note so ridiculous, so heavy-handed and over-the-top that it would have been right at home during some cartoon parody of pretentious Oscar do-gooders trying to shout its message towards your 6-D glasses. Rushing back comes all the over-hammered nails of a film built upon its ambiguity and we end up laughing at the moment we should be thunderstruck. Whatever doubts I had about what side of the fence I was sitting on were lifted almost instantaneously as the flaws of its ambitions and the inconsistencies of its moral parables were too great to ignore. If only it had a little more faith in its audience to accept its message of understanding without resorting to such overdramatics that even Kindergardners could get an A+ for spelling out, we may have been willing to return to its Sunday discussions more often. I'm sure of that.

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originally posted: 12/12/08 16:00:00
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell gripping thought provoking 4 stars
5/29/13 Ebrahim Kazemipour The mivie casts doubt on our presuppositions of people.I love it very much. 4 stars
8/24/10 RLan great story, even better acting by all invovled. 4 stars
12/22/09 SirGent A new fave & solid from top to bottom, I love Streep! 5 stars
8/24/09 MP Bartley Stagey, but keeps you guessing till, and past, the end. Hoffman and Adams the standouts. 4 stars
6/23/09 Anonymous. I loved this movie. 5 stars
6/17/09 Simon Thoughtful but theatery. Streep still overrated in caricatured character, dreadful ending 3 stars
6/08/09 Danny Very good performances in a rather boring movie. 3 stars
5/24/09 Deck Sophie & Aloysius are the same actress - Streep Rules 4 stars
5/09/09 Charles R.L. Power Not believable, and if it were, its sympathies are in the wrong place. 2 stars
4/17/09 matt meryl streep should have been shot in the face at the end. otherwise a great film! 4 stars
4/17/09 Total Crap The movie is an exercise in brilliant acting. But, that doesn't say much for the plot. 3 stars
2/06/09 Keoni Incredibly believable acting by Streep. I was taught by the Sisters of Charity. Great end. 5 stars
2/04/09 Veritas Ham-fisted, tedious, and utterly false. And Streep's performance is RIDICULOUSLY BAD!!!! 1 stars
1/26/09 mr.mike Only complaint is I couldn't shake the feeling that Hoffman was miscast. 4 stars
1/09/09 meg It was a good ending, he was guilty yet promoted she expresses doubt re God faith justice 4 stars
1/03/09 jcjs33 decent, fine acting, dragged, ok theme, nothing new 4 stars
12/31/08 ravenmad great acting, but wished there was more to it, more drama, more something... 3 stars
12/30/08 orpy Good acting by all; bummer of an ending... 3 stars
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  12-Dec-2008 (PG-13)
  DVD: 07-Apr-2009


  DVD: 07-Apr-2009

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