Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Two great performances, but a lot of "Doubt" about where this movie's going

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“Doubt” is one of those movies that is splendidly acted, beautifully shot, emotionally affecting – and yet its internal logic withers in the brutal sunray of reason.

It’s a story about a man who is accused of something, something particularly vile, and yet he’s presented as being so good and virtuous, and his antagonists so petty and spiteful, that we’re directed to place our hopes with him. But because he behaves like someone who’s guilty – refusing to answer even the simplest questions – the audience is left feeling pulled and torn.

Are we supposed to really wonder whether Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is guilty of molesting a boy in his parish? The Pulitzer-winning stage drama is more circumspect, dropping incriminating hints, so the audience is left with … well, doubt about his motives.

But the film eschews shades of gray, setting up the conflict between Father Flynn and the fire-breathing harpy of a chief nun, Sister Aloysius Beauvier, as a battle between good and evil, modernity and hidebound tradition, progressive inclusiveness versus xenophobic mistrust.

It’s McCarthyism played out in black robes and rosaries.

As Sister Aloysius, Meryl Streep dominates the film as she’s never done before, thundering her accusations through the nasal megaphone of a Brooklyn accent. The children at St. Nicholas Church School tremble at the sound of her passing, and the other nuns are not much better off: at dinner, they even stop and start their bites at the ringing of her table bell.

Amy Adams plays the young and impressionable Sister James, who naturally identifies with Father Flynn’s open-hearted ways, but is susceptible to Sister Aloysius’ stern prodding. She wonders why the priest pays such special attention to Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), who in 1964 is the only black student at the school. When the boy returns to Sister James’ class from a conference with Father Flynn in a disturbed state, it sets off a chain reaction that leads to a showdown between priest and nun – without a shred of concrete evidence ever being presented.

Viola Davis plays the boy’s mother, whose go-along-to-get-along attitude is shocking in its seeming indifference to Donald’s long-term psychological health. A few years later, a soldier employing the same sort of logic would defend the need to destroy a village in order to save it.

John Patrick Shanley is the playwright, screenwriter and director, so the strengths and weaknesses of the film rest on his shoulders. The movie is gorgeous to gaze upon (the inestimable Roger Deakins is cinematographer), and the look of everything from the clergy vestments to the spotless but well-worn school breathes with authenticity.

Shanley has a knockout cast, and he certainly doesn’t let them go to waste. The scenes between Hoffman and Streep virtually hum with energy.

But ultimately, “Doubt” is a movie that is pointing its audience off in one direction while it toddles away in another. It raises compelling questions without even attempting cogent answers.

Early on, Father Flynn gives a sermon where he praises the role of doubt, since it's in questioning our faith that we cause it to take root. That may be true in theology, but not movie-making.

2.5 stars out of four

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