How much of what we “know” is merely what we want to believe? When college students watch THE WIZARD OF OZ synced up to Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon,” are they really seeing something that fits together or do they just want to see it? Did our leaders who took us into the streets of Baghdad really have all the necessary intelligence or were they just so certain that weapons were there? In DOUBT, a priest named Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) is accused of having an inappropriate relationship with one of his altar boys, the only African American child in his parish. Different points of view are presented, all with their own doubts.
Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the nun who makes the accusation, is entirely certain of his guilt. The young, doe eyed Sister James (Amy Adams) wants badly to believe Father Flynn is innocent. The young altar boy’s mother, Mrs. Muller (Viola Davis) takes a more pragmatic approach, and has concerns beyond the alleged incident. Writer and Director John Patrick Shanley fills this film with doubt. It is difficult to enter the film without preconceived notions of pedophilia within the Catholic church. Yet, Father Flynn seems like such a kind, affable person, which makes us question the motives of Sister Aloysius. There is plenty of doubt to go around.
The central conflict really boils down to the contrasting ideologies of Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius. Sister Aloysius is a disciplinarian who the children at the school fear. She believes in a strict adherence to tradition and rules. She grimaces when she discovers a “modern” ball point pen in one of the classrooms and deems “Frosty the Snowman” as heretical. Flynn is more progressive and wants the families in the community to view the priests and nuns as family members. When the altar boy in question (Joseph Foster) surfaces as the lone African American boy in the school, Flynn takes a special interest in him as his “protector.” Both Aloysius and Flynn are married to these extremely different ideas regarding the direction of the church and are certain they are right and the other is wrong. As the film progresses, different pieces of the puzzle are presented but there is nothing definitive.
The notion of doubt is obviously integral to the film. In our society, doubt is often viewed as a weakness. Certainty is rewarded and revered. You’ll never find a politician tell a reporter that they don’t know something. They’ll come up with an answer that passes for basic knowledge or change the subject to something they’re certain about. The film suggests that it is better to doubt than it is to be foolishly certain. The church is an institution in which blind faith is required, doubt is frowned upon yet certainty can never be granted. The choice to set this film within the confines of this institution is no coincidence.
DOUBT is a film of exemplary writing and superb acting. Meryl Streep injects Sister Aloysius with a cautious venom. She is sure of herself and her convictions, and Streep does wonders with mere glances and ticks. As DeNiro and Pacino wallow in self pardoy, Streep remains a consistently outstanding actress who prides herself in challenging projects. Phillip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t disappoint and holds his ground against Streep. Viola Davis is in the film for just one scene but carries an emotional wrecking ball. She does more in 12 minutes than many popular actresses do their entire careers. A virtual unknown, Davis steals the show from Streep.
Writer/Director John Patrick Shanley adapted his stage play which had a successful and critically acclaimed run on Broadway. There is nothing easy in the film and nothing is resolved or tied together nicely. The screenplay is a tightrope act, never tipping its hand either direction. In the end, we are left only with our preconceived notions, our innuendoes and our doubts.