John Patrick Shanley
Philip Seymour Hoffman
It is directed by John Patrick Shanley, who adapts his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Set in a Catholic school in 1964, the story centers on five characters: Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who sees to it the school progresses with the times; Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the strict, fire-breathing principal; the naďve Sister James (Amy Adams); Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), who is mistreated by his peers for being the school’s first black student, and possibly gay; and his mother (Viola Davis), who leaps to her son’s defense in a shocking way.
The central battle begins when Donald is called to the rectory by Father Flynn and returns to class distraught and with wine on his breath.
“So…it’s happened,” says Sister Aloysius. She calls Flynn to her office, treads lightly around the subject with inquires about the school play, and then, going on Sister James’s suspicions, lays it out: “What exactly happened in the rectory?”
“Nothing,” says Flynn. “Private matter.” But what could be so private between a priest and a twelve-year-old altar boy?
Some viewers will have made up their minds early on as to whether Flynn is guilty, or if the traditional Aloysius holds a grudge against the liberal Flynn and now seizes her only chance to have him removed from St. Nicholas Church School. There are arguments for both camps. On one hand, the way Flynn cradles Donald and calls him “champ” comes off as peculiar, and Flynn only once, in his final confrontation with Aloysius, ever denies her accusations. On the other, Aloysius is constantly threatened and paranoid by the clergy’s chain of command and Flynn’s “impurity,” like his long fingernails and secularity regarding the Christmas play.
But for every argument, there is a counter. Maybe Flynn is offering protection for Donald that he won’t otherwise find in school or at home. And what good would outright denying Aloysius’s claims do? Or, why shouldn’t Aloysius want to keep her school conservative and without distractions such as Frosty the Snowman?
No evidence is ever presented in the film, which creates an uneasiness throughout. Still, it’s not enough for Shanley, who overloads many scenes with obvious and amateur tricks, like queasy Dutch tilts and strategically-placed thunderstorms, to drive his point relentlessly into our heads.
But when he’s not overcompensating for his debut feature, Joe Versus the Volcano, Shanley nails it, offering a smart and precise examination of the change and instability of the post-Kennedy era. Subtle shifts in pattern, like when Sister Aloysius listens to a new portable radio she confiscated from a student early on, or when Sister James, presumably for the first time, sends a young boy to the principal’s office, suggest the deterioration of their morals.
But Father Flynn remains stoic throughout. Is he hiding something? Or is he just so sure of himself that he has to present himself as such to fend off Sister Aloysius‘s “gossip?”
Doubt is a film that refuses to answer or judge. It relies on strong performers--which it has four of, Oscar nominated all--to nail each pause, emphases, and movement in the many dialogue-driven scenes so as not to suggest who may be guilty. It leaves us questioning not just Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, but ourselves.
From Stage to Screen (HD; 19:09) uses on-set footage and interviews--with Shanley, Hoffman, Streep, Davis, Adams, and Sister Margaret McEntee (who, in addition to inspiring the character of Sister James, worked as a technical consultant)--to trace the roots of Doubt from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play to an Oscar-nominated film. Topics include Shanley’s difficulties in adapting his play for the screen, shooting on location, casting, and the characters. A detailed look at the film that fans should watch.
The Cast of Doubt (HD; 13:52): Entertainment Weekly writer Dave Karger sits down with the four principals to discuss the differences between theater and movie audiences, and the challenges Doubt presents to viewers.
Scoring Doubt (HD; 4:40) focuses on the themes and significance of Howard Shore’s score through interviews and footage inside the studio.
The Sisters of Charity (HD; 6:29): Four former nuns from the Sisters of Charity sit down to share their comments on their rituals and the changes in the Catholic church in the early 1960s.