"Challenging, thought-provoking material."
Doubt did a very beautiful thing a week after I saw it. It got me into a fight. Okay, "fight" is maybe a little too sexy. This was not a bar brawl. It was more like an hour-long argument that devolved into name-calling. But there were fighting words, I tell ya!
See, this is a film that inspires and damn near demands discussion. But before we discuss, let's delve into the premise: Sister Aloysius Beauvier (newcomer Meryl Streep) is suspicious of Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Suspicious why? This is an interesting question. You could certainly say she is suspicious of him when Sister James (Amy Adams) informs her of a curious sequence of events involving an outcast black boy (the film takes place in 1964) who may or may not have been molested by the priest. Yet, the film makes clear that Sister Aloysius's suspicions -- and doubts -- regarding Father Flynn might have begun much earlier, in the film's opening sermon. This film has a lot on its mind and it starts to make its case almost immediately.
Regardless, Sister Aloysius begins her investigation into the matter and there's no stopping her. She has, as Father Flynn rightly points out, "no evidence." But this is a world of habits and clerical collars: faith may take precedence over evidence. All Aloysius has is her certainty and by God, it's all she needs. She just knows, you know?
Sister James is caught between the two, troubled by her suspicions and doubts, but equally troubled by Aloysius's warpath. Amy Adams is very good here as Sister James. Watch the scene where Meryl Streep coaxes the truth out of her. It's a seduction, a dance really. And the music starts slow. These are dangerous waters after all.
Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman are excellent. Hoffman's decency and friendliness makes for a natural antagonist to Streep's old-school, no-nonsense Aloysius. Flynn is a man of the new era, instantly likable and you can't help but root for his innocence. Will the movie grant your wish? I cannot tell. All I can say is he hits the perfect notes here. His final sermon in the film -- where he discusses the power of gossip -- can be taken two ways and he plays to them both. It's stirring, powerful stuff.
Streep may appear humorless and unbearable in the trailers, but she is a surprisingly fun character. It's her complete lack of humor (okay, she made the joke about the light) that makes her entertaining. This is a good thing because she gives these very dark proceedings some much-needed levity. In the end, however, make no mistake. She is a viper.
Finally, there is Viola Davis, the fourth Oscar nominee in the cast. She has only one major scene but it's a doozy. She plays the boy's mother and what she has to say Aloysius may not want to hear.
The ending is the film's showpiece. Forgive me, for I am going to enter some spoiler territory in the next two paragraphs. It's a safe bet the final scene between Aloysius and Flynn is the best scene of the year, in terms of acting. It may very well tell you everything you need to know. And if it does, I can't specifically say what it will say (to you); or it may tell you nothing. Either way, it's chilling and because of that alone, it's satisfying.
I have my own interpretation. And Streep's final words in the film I think are more attributed to the opening scenes rather than her showdown with Father Flynn. But that is merely one take. The lovely young lady who I mentioned I argued with earlier has a completely different interpretation. And since then I have traveled Aloysius's path, from proclaimed certainty to admitted doubt.
Writer-Director John Patrick Shanley won the Pulitzer for this play. There's a lot going on here under the surface; this is challenging, thought-provoking material that begs for great acting. I think some of the dialogue in the film version probably works better on the stage than on the silver screen, but this is a minor issue. Shanley, long ago an Oscar-winning writer (for Moonstruck) has directed two films: Joe Versus the Volcano, which he also wrote, and now this. I love both films. Maybe he should get out more.
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Dre writes two times a week for Film.com. Email him!