It is rare for a thought-provoking film not to hypocritically also tell the audience what to think. It is even more rare for a mystery not to solve the puzzle. But Doubt is about engaging the viewer, not crossing the finish line.
At St. Nicholas in the Bronx in 1964, a vibrant, charismatic young priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), is trying to revolutionize the school’s strict customs, ushering in an air of friendliness. However, the stringent traditions are guarded fiercely by Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the iron-gloved principal who believes in the power of fear and discipline. Only a year after the assassination of JFK and on the cusp of the civil rights movement, the school accepts its first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). When Sister James (Amy Adams), a hopeful innocent, shares with Sister Aloysius her guilt-inducing suspicions that Father Flynn is paying too much attention to Donald, Sister Aloysius begins a crusade to uncover the truth and expunge Father Flynn. Without any evidence except her moral certainty, Sister Aloysius digs her heels in for a battle of wills with Father Flynn.
When pairing actors of Hoffman and Streep’s calibre, what is captured on-screen is explosive in its intensity. They have two significant confrontations in the film and both are dramatically stunning. Neither gives an inch, each able to stand up to the other without any sign of crumpling under the pressure of the performance. The result is awe-inspiring. Furthermore, Streep is incredibly intimidating as the rigid authoritarian but her glib responses during serious exchanges are somewhat off-putting.
Adams does not hide in the shadow of her formidable co-stars; rather, her contribution to the story is impressive. Adams has the ability to radiate goodness and convey true innocence, which is at the heart of her character. And with only one extended scene, Viola Davis still manages to leave her mark. She plays Donald’s mother, Mrs. Miller. In this scene, Davis effectively expresses the conflicting emotions of a mother with no other options. She is fighting for survival and that can force a person to live with tough decisions.
The story itself is stimulating. By framing the subject of doubt in a narrative that draws automatic reactions from people, writer/director John Patrick Shanley instantly challenges the audience’s position. The film is based on Shanley’s widely-acclaimed stage play but it is not about confronting molestation by priests. More exactly, the provocative mystery compels two nuns, a priest and a boy’s mother to confront their core beliefs, tackling themes of religion, morality, authority and judgement.
The narrative is further propelled by various metaphors. Father Flynn is a master of words, which he demonstrates during his pointed sermons. Hoffman’s delivery of the evocative speeches is plainly not just directed at the screen characters. Additionally, the “winds of change” are constantly whipping around Sister Aloysius as she resists modernizing. On the other hand, the set itself is starkly dressed, directing everyone’s attention to the struggling characters.
The cinematography is brilliant, framing scenes complementary to the actions taking place. Even the skewed angling of certain shots is expressive of the scene’s mood.
In the end, nothing is proven. Audiences are left to come to their own conclusions, as they grapple with the same seeds of doubt as the film’s protagonists.