5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
A telltale sign of a great film is the desire – no, the need – to see it again with the prescient knowledge that the second viewing will lead to the third and, eventually, the twenty-third. Such a feeling bubbles up after watching John Patrick Shanley's big screen rendering of his Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning morality play, “Doubt,” but not immediately. The hunger for another go-round doesn't hit you until the trip home. What comes first at the end of this enigmatic stunner is the overwhelming gratification of its performances. Headlined by the incomparable Meryl Streep, the movie is a showcase of magnificent acting. It's the hottest ticket in town for those who, like me, prefer their drama in big, thunderous portions and served to them by actors whose intensity of talent damn-near shakes the theater floor.
Set in 1964 (which we learn from cleverly planted dialogue rather than intertitles), “Doubt” takes place entirely in and around St. Nicholas, a Catholic school in the Bronx overseen with ironclad scrutiny by its dreaded principal, Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep). Recently, St. Nicholas has seen two new arrivals: Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a progressive and liberal priest aiming to make the school more user-friendly, and 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), its first black student. Uniformly shunned by his peers, Donald forms a bond with Flynn, a fellow misfit whose methods and ideas are met with great disdain from Sister Aloysius. When the meek Sister James (Amy Adams) is given an inkling that Flynn's and Donald's association goes beyond mere friendship, she informs Sister Aloysius and unwittingly sets off an electrifying chain of events. Armed with all the proof she needs (which is none), the headstrong headmistress is instantly and utterly convinced of Flynn's guilt. She takes Sister James' subtle tip-off and initiates a one-woman quest for justice, focusing all of her steely resolve on ejecting Flynn from the school for good.
Housed within “Doubt”'s simple and straightforward infrastructure is a wellspring of densely layered themes and ingenious ambiguities. These days, a story about priesthood pedophilia is, unfortunately, nothing new, but the way this one is told will challenge, rattle, and, ultimately, floor you. An equal case is made for both Flynn and Sister Aloysius, and the questions of who is innocent and who is guilty are in a constant tug-of-war. Shanley's words, which are written like velvet and spat out like fire, are so cunning and duplicitous, they, along with the characters' actions, are intended to polarize the audience. I saw this film with an intelligent person whose opinion I respect. The two of us emerged from it with opposite interpretations of the outcome, neither of them incorrect. Both morally conflicted characters are drawn with balanced cause for sympathy and suspicion and who you are will determine your reaction. Every point has a counterpoint, every unturned stone another beneath it. Nestled in there, too, believe it or not, is a surprising abundance of gallows humor, making the movie not only thought-provoking but amusing as well.
While “Milk,” “The Dark Knight,” “Burn After Reading,” and “Rachel Getting Married” all featured stellar ensembles, when it comes to colossal acting across the board, there's no better one-stop shop this year than “Doubt.” Adams, who's perfectly cast, channels her inherent smarts and sweetness into her best role since “Junebug,” embodying the story's minimal purity and providing a glimmer of hope. Viola Davis (“Nights in Rodanthe”), who plays Donald's desperate mother and delivers some of the film's most shocking revelations, is so devastating, she will blow you away. Hoffman, who has yet to give a less-than-excellent performance, claims the part of Father Flynn with a commanding authority. Streep, who surely needs no introduction, does the same with Sister Aloysius, and with even greater impact. If Cherry Jones' Tony-winning take on this character is indeed better, as many say, then I'm gonna need a seatbelt if and when I see it because Streep nearly takes the house down. Icy-cold but passionately driven, her work here is even more intimidating than her editrix in “The Devil Wears Prada” due to Sister Aloysious' unswerving purpose. If there's any actor working today who's more innately gifted than Streep, he or she has never crossed my path. Aside from her dramatic ardor, she has a way of interacting with people and things within in a scene that's so natural, it would go virtually unnoticed if it wasn't so rare. You can expect her, Adams, Davis, and Hoffman to all be up for Oscars come January.
You can also expect people to tell you that “Doubt” suffers from “staginess.” You can expect them to say that its look is too bland and that its sometimes blatantly metaphorical speech is too Broadway for the screen. But I say, when the material is this provocative and the talent this explosive, a stage is all that's needed. “Doubt” needs no garnishes. Shanley – who also directed – called in ace cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “Fargo”) to make his sequences picture-perfect, but what's depicted is appropriately free of showy embellishments. What you get is hallways, classrooms, offices, pathways, and chapels, all of them impeccably composed. If you require more than that, you've missed the point.
“Doubt” is a film I can't wait to own on DVD. Its lingering power not only bears repeating in its entirety but also warrants the point-and-select enjoyment of its many compulsively watchable scenes. Before that, I'll be back to the theater to feed the hunger and see it again. “Doubt” is one of the best movies of the year and of that there is no – oh, you know.