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.)
As 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.
As 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.