Pickup: A new year should be an opportunity for turning over a new leaf. Here at the 2 Shot that means seeking out films that once dodged our attention. Despite a considerable amount of critical praise, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2008) is one that slipped through the cracks. Having seen it for the first time some weeks ago, its relevance has been on my mind since.
Set in 1964, a year after President Kennedy’s assassination squashed the innocence of a generation, St. Nicholas—a Catholic school in the Bronx—feels like a world of its own: a world removed from the grit of American involvement in Vietnam, a place above the civil unrest around the country, a haven from The Beatles’ charms.
This is just the way St. Nicholas’ principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), demands it as she rules over the children and other nuns with an icy demeanor.
On the other hand, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has a more progressive spirit and has ideas for the school’s future. Thus, these two very strong-willed people stand not shoulder-to-shoulder, but in their separate corners, face-to-face. Points of contention between the two come in different shapes and sizes. Sister Aloysius’ emphasis on penmanship is challenged by Father Flynn’s casual use of the ballpoint pen, while his proposal to include a “Frosty the Snowman” number in the annual Christmas play is rejected for the fixed.
Tradition vs. change.
The “winds of change” that figuratively (and sometimes quite literally) blow against Sister Aloysius are further reflected by the presence of St. Nicholas’ lone black student and altar boy, Donald Miller.
Though Father Flynn has a good rapport with the majority of the children, is heavily involved in school activities, and coaches the boys’ basketball team, he and Miller are particularly close. One day, the boy is called from Sister James’ (Amy Adams) classroom only to return minutes later looking upset and with the faint smell of alcohol on his breath.
Almost begrudgingly, Sister James privately shares this news with Sister Aloysius and admits though she likes Father Flynn very much, she now has her suspicions.
“It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion. I feel less close to God.”
To which Sister Aloysius replies, “When you take a step to address wrongdoing, you are taking a step away from God, but in his service. What have you seen?”
The truth is no one in the church has seen any wrongdoing.
Throughout the film, Shanley opens doors to the school and the audience becomes witness to classroom lectures, Sunday mass and the work that goes into them, staff meetings, and dinner conversations.
Father Flynn never speaks or acts inappropriately. Nonetheless, I felt unsure whether or not everything was as it should be. If Sister James and I fall into the category of “unsure” or “suspicious,” then Sister Aloysius is unequivocally certain of Flynn’s guilt.
To share any more of the film’s plot would be to rob you–hopefully a soon to be viewer–of what I felt was a genuine experience and examination of ever-lasting themes: faith, community, the nature of “knowing,” and of course doubt.
But beyond the challenging and relevant subject matter, there are other reasons Doubt lingers.
First are the performances of the film’s three leads. Second is the film’s look, spearheaded by Roger Deakins’ cinematography.
Most important is the film’s relevance. The film was produced during the height of the Catholic Church’s molestation scandals and though these stories have been out of the headlines for some time, the wound is still very much open.
What’s more, the film captures the failures of two human social structures quite well.
First, the Church itself. The nuns seem to lack any de jure power, which means the priests, Father Flynn included, answer to other men. Indeed, after Flynn is forced by Aloysius to request a transfer from St. Nicholas, he’s effectively promoted to head another parish. Previous to that, is a dinner scene between the priests. The “boy’s club” atmosphere hangs heavy. The men drink, eat raw-looking meat, and tell dirty jokes. Cut to the nuns eating dinner in cold, awkward silence.
Second, society itself. This is most obvious during the scene between Mrs. Miller (Viola Davis) and Sister Aloysius. After Aloysius voices her suspicions about Father Flynn, Mrs. Miller’s response amounts to “So what?” For this poor black family in the Bronx, waiting it out seems like the best option.
It’s not about justice. It’s about getting by in a system that presents so many challenges and roadblocks. For Mrs. Miller, the opportunity for her son to get into a good high school and have a college education outweighs the possible sexual assault. Quite the damning statement of American society, no?
Written and Directed by John Patrick Shanley
Starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis
Budget: $20 million
Distributed by Miramax Films
-Nick Fleming with Ryan Pumroy