REVIEW: Doubt [2008]

“Killing kindness in the name of virtue”

Upon seeing the trailer for John Patrick Shanley’s film Doubt, based upon his own play, I just thought, wow, a great cast with a dull story. Well, after seeing it, my mind has been changed to believing that the accolades strewn down may be warranted. Something about small-scale films adapted from theatre resonates with me. I love the emotional punch packed inside, tightly constructed for a powerful impact. Unlike a novel, plays need to get everything out in a short period of time, and that concentrated energy gets released with so much more weight. What I originally thought would be a back and forth between priest and nun, eventually ending in the truth coming out and all being over, instead becomes an exercise in humanity and ego. Everything we do as people has reasons and consequences, the truth is a strong thing, but speculation is even stronger. When someone gets an idea into his head, he will continue that course of thinking until the end, doing whatever he can to bring the wrongdoer to justice and vindicate the victim. No matter how much that judge may believe he is doing right, the toll and price of his actions may exceed the cost of finding the truth. Because if the truth isn’t what he thinks, he will never believe it, therefore making justice void, ruining lives by allowing fear and the unknown take control over the pursuit and achievement of fact.

Watching this subject matter in the forum of a church is an interesting and disturbing thing. While the idea of child molestation hangs in the balance, on whether this priest began an inappropriate relationship with a boy, it is not the main aspect of the story. Instead, the question of how someone deals with his own doubt comes to the forefront. As Father Flynn, the priest in question played wonderfully by Philip Seymour Hoffman, says early on, doubt can be as powerfully bonding as conviction. You may think it’s you versus the world, but there are really so many out there sharing the same questions of faith and action as you. All it takes is one small event, one seemingly innocuous moment to make someone question another’s actions. Once the seed of doubt is planted, however, it is very tough to remove, yet rather easy to spread onto others.

The film doesn’t even really need to tell you if the atrocity in question actually occurred or not, that isn’t important. What is crucial becomes how everyone involved deals with the accusations. The power struggle of the church becomes a big factor as you start to question whether the men do have the women pressed under their controlling grip. By juxtaposing the dinner quarters of the two groups, watching the nuns sit properly and eat in silence while the men laugh and joke and indulge themselves, you can’t help but wonder about that dynamic. At multiple instances the regimented structural hierarchy of nun to priest to bishop to pope comes up showing a chain of authority that cannot be questioned at any moment. The format only succeeds if it is followed to the letter, the entire system will topple if anything less occurs.

As a result, so much is challenged. Religion, morals, that gray line between right and wrong, whether wrong can somehow be good if you allow yourself to see only the benefits and lie to yourself about the horrors happening along with them—this film will make you look deep inside yourself and wonder how you’d react. Would you be able to go against your vows, against the rules of God that you have followed for so long, in order to seek what you thought was right? Would you question a higher authority’s word on a hunch? Would you have that much faith in yourself that he was lying? To be able to fully commit yourself in a course of action, consequences be damned, you must have no doubt at all. However, if at the end things change, if doubts start creeping in, you will be devastatingly lost, always unsure of yourself and whether you can ever trust your gut again.

The strength and resolve of a human being is not shown better than in the two final confrontations of this film. Viola Davis is amazing as the possible victim’s mother, a woman who is trying to keep her family together and give her son a chance at a life. No matter what is happening, she just needs until June, until he graduates, then he can go away to a good high school and possibly college. 1964 is not an easy time for a black family in a heavily populated Irish neighborhood. She is surviving and hoping her son does as well, because it isn’t just the boys in school, or the teachers making accusations on each other around him, but also their home too, with a father that won’t except a son who doesn’t fit his ideals. When she and Meryl Streep, the nun at the head of Father Flynn’s witch trial, have their walk together, that scene becomes the film. Davis, as a mother, begins to go outside the boundaries of that sacred job just as Streep goes out of hers as a nun. The two are so much the same, yet on opposite sides, that it becomes such a powerhouse of emotions and revelations.

But it all culminates in the final showdown between Hoffman and Streep, the point at which the film takes a turn I never anticipated it doing. Whether the truth comes out or not, this is a scene containing two of the best, screaming and challenging one another with empty threats, lies, and half-truths. They are the two biggest monsters in a film chock full of them. Both are doing what in their minds is right, risking the ruin of the other for something no one has proof for or against. It becomes a test of whether a reputation becomes bigger than the person. Is it worth it to risk shame in order to keep a lie underwraps? Just because there is no proof for guilt doesn’t mean the creed “innocent until proven guilty” will hold true. Once someone calls another’s self into question, once a person’s integrity becomes blemished due to fact or fiction, there is no turning back. Like the metaphor of a pillow’s feathers flying across town, unable to be retrieved, gossip spreads like wildfire and it can never be overturned. People will always think twice, but it also works the other way too. If everyone seems to feel that person is just, and it’s only you who thinks differently, well then the guilt all of a sudden transfers. It begins to eat away at you as you wonder if all that work, all those sacrifices with their dire consequences, were for nothing.

Doubt 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

[1] Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn and Amy Adams as Sister James Photo Credit: Andrew Schwartz/Miramax Film Corp
[2] Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius and Viola Davis as Mrs. Muller Photo Credit: Miramax Film Corp.


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