Rightwing Film Geek

Doubt makes a liar of me


DOUBT (John Patrick Shanley, USA, 2008, 7)

I said going in that this would either be awesome or vile; as the grade indicates, it’s not close to either.

I think the title DOUBT is somewhat misleading. Or rather, that some people are taking its meaning wrong, assuming that what actually happens in the movie is what is in doubt, or is indeterminable or left ambiguous. Or to be concrete, whether Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) actually interfered with an altar boy named Donald or whether the suspicions of Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) were false. There is no  cathartic Hercule Poirot scene of solving the crime or the guilty party saying “and I would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”

To which I can only shrug my shoulders. I don’t think either the film or the play of DOUBT (I prefer the latter) is even slightly ambiguous in terms of what happens. But where I think the title makes more sense is about the question “what to make of what clearly does happen.” Elsewhere, I’ve essentially defined this as the difference between “good ambiguity” and “bad ambiguity”; what happens needs to be clear, what it means need not. What makes DOUBT a great work about knowledge, judgment and yes, doubt, and yes, Catholicism, is that it isn’t overdetermined. (No, A.O. Scott in the New York Times got DOUBT completely wrong.)

doubtstreep1As I said, I was suspicious of the movie going in, partly because I didn’t think the filmmakers would keep the film’s more discomforting (to the Oscar-bait audience) ideas intact. Well, the filmmakers did (Shanley directed and adapted his own play, which probably was key), and I’ll elaborate later.

I think the play much the better work of art, though I’ve never seen it performed. Perhaps reading a play lets you build the performances and nuances in your head, particularly when dealing with a play that’s to a large extent an allegory of ideas. A written play exists as a Platonic Form, in a way a theatrical performance doesn’t, much less a film. Any actual instanciation inevitably corrupts. As Giotto, Pasolini ended THE DECAMERON looking at one of his own frescoes and saying “it’s so much better to dream it.” Hitchcock famously said he didn’t actually like shooting his movies because all his creative work had been done before he walked onto the set, and the only things that could happen during the shoot would be blemish upon the film he had made in his head.

Needless to conclude therefore, I found DOUBT much less successful as cinema on the screen than cinema in my head. But regardless of any understanding of adaptation, there are some severe problems. Meryl Streep, as I feared from the trailer, overdoes the Tyrant Nun act, though Mike D’Angelo is right that this is more true early on. And her finest moments come later — talking about her husband, the whole scene with Viola Davis as the boy’s mother, the final confrontation. Hoffman’s performance has the opposite trajectory — he embodies the role so well with his Easy Every(young)man persona for so long, but then when the confrontations tighten, he starts yelling and he just can only come across as more affected than effective.

doubtshanleyAs for Shanley’s direction, it is simply weak on every level. J. Robert Parks describes them in a review with which I mostly agree in the details,¹ though I simply like the play so much not to care in the big picture. Tilting the camera at key moments, strategically-placed thunder, the (not in the play) scene involving the cat and the mouse, Streep’s too-on-the-nose John XXIII quote about “who keeps opening my windows” (also not in the play IIRC), the up-and-out shot dissipating the final, shattering line. Virtually every time I felt Shanley’s presence as a film director or adapter, I thought it was a mistake.

Which bring me back to the text of the play, and why DOUBT had held such a fascination over me since I devoured it during a single subway ride. The spoilers commence. You have been warned.


At the end of the play (and the movie’s plot follows the play in every important respect) Sister Aloysius bluffs Father Flynn into resigning by saying (falsely) that she knows about previous charges of interfering with boys at other parishes, and that he had been reassigned several times on the basis of them. Father resigns from the school, de facto admitting that Sister was correct in her initial suspicions that Father was doing the same with Donald. Sister Aloysius knew but couldn’t prove this, based on Donald’s having alcohol on his breath from Communion wine shortly after being called in to see Father, on Father’s unusual closeness to him, and on Sister James (Amy Adams) seeing Father returning Donald’s undershirt to his locker. Nevertheless, Father gets a promotion, to a parish pastorship, and Sister Aloysius’s lie causes her first doubts.

It seems to me both:

(1) as an epistemological point, if you think that anything in a movie (or in life) is knowable or really true, then Hoffman was guilty. Simply put, when confronted with the circumstantial evidence, he was evasive, avoided answering some non-Sacramental questions on ceremony, and eventually had nothing to say except “how do you know” (which is not a rebuttal to “is it true”; epistemology problems don’t negate objective reality); “what place is it of yours, you must follow the hierarchy” (ditto; procedural issues don’t negate it either); and “I have confessed my sins” (which there is no reason to say in this context if it doesn’t refer to interfering with boys). And finally Father did resign to avert a public fuss with his previous parish, the plainest-possible admission of a guilty conscience.


(2) as an aesthetic point, that unless Hoffman was guilty molesting Donald or taking advantage of a “gay boy in training” willing to be seduced, the movie is no good. If Hoffman were simply the innocent victim of Streep’s ill-willed, tight-ass, repressed pre-V2 insinuation (and make no mistake, THAT’S the movie we’d be talking about if Hoffman be innocent, given a lot of other things about the text before us), then DOUBT would become a smugly presentist, overdetermined, anti-Papist screed — THE AWFUL DISCLOSURES OF MARIA MONK as annotated by Hans Kung. And the difference between true knowledge and proof, and the conflicts this gap can create, is just generally a worthwhile topic; the difference between false knowledge and proof is not.

What makes the text I have described great is precisely that it isn’t what A.O. Scott described in the New York Times:

“Doubt,” “The Reader,” “Frost/Nixon,” “Revolutionary Road” — all of these transplants from stage or page are impeccably acted, exquisitely production-designed excursions into the recent past. And each one is a hermetically sealed melodrama of received thinking, feverishly advancing a set of themes that are the very opposite of provocative. The suburbs are hell on earth. Richard Nixon was a monster. Literature is good for you. Religious authority is bad. The Nazis too. Kate Winslet is hot.

doubthoffmanThe actual Times review linked to from Scott’s year-end wrapup is by Manohla Dargis, so I have no idea what Scott thinks of DOUBT in detail. But if, as I argue, the movie only makes logical sense if Hoffman actually did take liberties with Donald (and it’s important to note — he really did or he really didn’t. Regardless of the epistemological obstacles, there is a “fact of the matter”), then it’s the very opposite of the jejune overdone theme of “religious authority is bad.” To your average secular-liberal New York Times reader, here’s all the ways DOUBT really IS provocative:

  • A sometimes-caricatured representative of tightassed pre-Vatican II religious authority protected boys from predator priests;
  • A charismatic “Spirit of Vatican II” “progressive” priest (that p-word is actually used by Hoffman to describe his efforts, and he’s coded that way in a million other details; e.g., leaving the altar to mingle during the Sign of Peace) actually molested boys;
  • A “Spirit of Vatican II” “progressive” priest resorted to patriarchal religious authority (“you should have gone to the pastor [at the previous church],” not the nun) to protect his predatory path;
  • A molested boy was a budding homosexual (his parents both suspect it) and thus may have been willing to be seduced’
  • A mother thinks the chance of Father interfering with her son in the course of their “special relationship” is an acceptable price or risk.

doubtdavisThe only reason this text DOUBT is more interesting than MARIA MONK or the film Scott wrongly describes is precisely because things DON’T fall along the predictable axes of sympathy for the works’ likely intended audience. Frankly, I didn’t think the play’s complexities would survive in an big-budget, Oscar-season film adaptation (particularly the suggestions both that homosexuality had something to do with The Situation in the Church and that Donald’s mother, a sympathetic character, would take the risk of adult seduction as tolerable). The typical Oscar-bait movie viewer (Scott is correct as a matter of general description) or the typical New York Times reader blames the priest sex scandal on the Church’s sex rules, both generally and with respect to priests. “If only priests could marry or be gay, or we had women priests, or the church were more democratic or progressive, etc., this would never have happened,” the thought goes. But this is false both empirically and in terms of what DOUBT is all about. Ross Douthat said quite well back in 2006 (he is talking of the play) how DOUBT is exactly what Scott says it is not — a work that challenges both sides of a conversation by not overdetermining the assignment of virtues and vices according to art-house and Landmark audience assumptions.

What [DOUBT] does … more effectively than any work of art I’ve seen, is dramatize both the weaknesses of old-fashioned, pre-Vatican II Catholicism – the legalism, the occasional cruelty, the seeming heartlessness – and the ways that the 1960s reforms went so quickly wrong, good intentions and all. It dramatizes, as well, the central paradox of the entire sexual abuse scandal, which is that it partook of the worst of both “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism – the former’s sexual permissiveness and contempt for time-tested traditions, rules and safeguards; and the latter’s clericalism, its insistence that the hierarchy knew best and the laity should just “pray, pay and obey,” its willingness to use authority as a screen for irresponsibility. In the name of freedom and progress and experimentation, priests justified their own sins and those of their fellows; in the name of order and tradition and obedience, their superiors protected them.

¹ I especially liked his line “[Streep] knows how to chew her scenery without over-stuffing her mouth,” which I wish I’d written.

January 1, 2009 - Posted by | A.O. Scott, Catholicism, J. Robert Parks, John Patrick Shanley, Ross Douthat

1 Comment »

  1. Whoa! nevr actually read the play. But your review does crystallize my tenuous and amorphous understanding of the movie! Your clarity of thought is amazing! One part still remains nebulous in my undestanding, though- The end-scene where Meryl Streep breaks down into that “i have doubts” frenzy..is it wr.to the guilty priest being promoted? and, thus a simmering resentment of the institution she is part of. Or a more fundamental lack of conviction??

    Comment by preuxchevalier | February 9, 2009 | Reply

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