With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.
While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.
Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much â€“ racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality â€“ without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams), a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.
Shanley keeps the incident off screen and shows us only the same circumstantial evidence witnesses by Sister James (an upset child, alcohol on his breath, a boy’s T-shirt quietly put in a locker) and the perfectly logical explanations behind it all. Like real life, we will never, can never know, what happened behind closed doors, and we either believe the testimony or not. Where the film is so perceptive is in the way it reveals how our impulses are guided not by evidence but by the resonance of the issues (the pedophile priest scandals of the Catholic Church still fresh in our collective memories) and our personal connection to these people. We like Father Flynn, a down-to-earth priest attempting to connect personally and directly with his congregation and spread faith through love and support, and are suspicious of Sister Aloysius, who wants to preserve a very old school church of hierarchy and authority. Flynn threatens her world of very clear divisions and chains of authority, which she herself defies (even as she demands that her junior nuns follow it religiously, so to speak) for what she believes is the greater good, a certainty that is without proof. Yet Sister Aloysius is alarmingly perceptive about the reality of the old boy’s club of priests and church officers who don’t put stock in the suspicions of nuns and look out for each other in the face of allegations. Their battle is resonantly framed within a palpable cultural context and vivid personal motivations.
A lot of viewers get caught up in trying to figure out “what really happened,” when in fact the film is more of a Rorschach test. The dramatic “tell” that is the dramatic foundation of cinematic fictions becomes a so much noise when it comes to seeking genuine evidence. Is Father Flynn’s smiling attentions to the boy that of a paternal priest or something less sanguine and more corrupt? Is his embrace of the boy after he’s been bullied in the hall an act of compassion or an exhibitionist show of his benevolence? We think we see clues in the glances, in the gestures, in the body language, and the performers give us so much to work with. Meanwhile the pattern revealed in the denoument (I won’t reveal it here) is so familiar to the real-life behavior of the church so adept of covering up the sins of priests that we are tempted to see this as some kind of “proof” of guilt.
But I think it’s more about deconstructing the way we understand characters in dramatic fictions and how that can be misleading if we extend that to life. Which is not to say that Doubt has anything to do with life. It is not a mirror held up to the world, but a dramatic fiction of its own. Yet it extends the consequences of actions into the world. It asks us if we can put any real confidence in our certainty that we “know” what happened if it really came down enforcing any justice in the real world?
Doubt is, at best, directed with an unadorned directness that in dramatic moments tends to fall into familiar patterns â€“ the alternating shot/reaction shot close-ups of Streep and Hoffman during the signature confrontations â€“ which pulls us out of the more interesting duel of played out in body language reflecting, at various times, their sense of authority, sense of outrage and sense of righteous drive. But it is all directed without irony or cynicism, and that openness to experience hits us in the brilliant scene between Streep’s crusading nun and the mother (Viola Davis) of the boy whose maternal protectiveness leads her to a position that shakes Sister Beauvier’s certainty to the core. Streep and Hoffman come at one another in very different performance styles, which only dramatize the gulf between their understanding of their positions and their duties as servants to the Church. They constantly remind us of the complexity of human beings, not just ulterior motives or emotional impulses, but lives lived that echo through the present, a compassion and protectiveness that is accomplished quietly and without an audience, and personal compromise in the lives of folks willing to risk the present for a better future. Shanley resorts to the odd device for provocatively theatrical punctuation â€“ stormy winds that whip up to punctuate a decision or a bold statement of purpose, a light bulb that pops suddenly, a driving storm in the night during the turbulent battle of wills â€“ but if it is the wrath of God commenting on the drama, it’s not clear who’s side He’s on, if any. It plays like stage direction in an old-fashioned theatrical thriller and Shanley’s impudence in applying such old-fashioned expressionism in a piece of chamber-drama “realism” with ambiguous meaning is puckishly fun at worst and revealing at best. Like so much else in the film, it challenges us to take a second look as such familiar signs and meaning that we so often take at face value. Everything may have an explanation, but it’s likely that all we’re ever going to get is the public face of private lives. The rest is cast in doubt.