There’s a good movie somewhere in the idea of Doubt (a nun suspects a priest of molesting a child, but it’s 1964 and the patriarchy of the Church isn’t going to listen to her). The film’s full of almost detective moments (and faux-auteur Shanley pulls out some Hitchcock angles after the big reveal), but the film never embraces that nature. As a character study masquerading as a detective story, Doubt would have been fantastic. As an awkward conversation drama–Shanley opens the film in the church’s neighborhood, then never returns to this neighborhood, it’s all malarky to make a theater adaptation seem opened up for the screen–it’s a failure.
The fault lies, obviously, with Shanley. There are two major problems with his script here. First, either Philip Seymour Hoffman is a good guy priest unduly hunted by Streep or he’s a child molester. I’m sure Shanley feels the movie–ultimately–lets the viewer decide, but that position isn’t just a cop-out (Doubt is in no way a piece about the way people talk to each other so it doesn’t get any leeway for being wishy-washy), it’s also a load. The entire movie, Shanley makes ever action Hoffman takes suspicious. It’s like watching, well, Suspicion. Presumably, the viewer is supposed to wait for proof, for the climatic showdown between Streep and Hoffman where all is revealed. Here’s the problem–if Hoffman’s a pederast, if there’s even a possibility of it, why not just judge him right out. It’s not like Shanley’s just making a movie about a guy killing his wife or robbing a bank, Doubt‘s an argument to–against all the weighted evidence Shanley presents–give the pederast the benefit of the (sorry) doubt. It’s kind of an icky feeling.
The second problem is the lack of character depth. Again, I’m sure Shanley thinks it’s all about the way things play out objectively, but the characters all have hints of depth, but it’s just matte paintings. Streep could have one of her most interesting characters in this part of her career, but instead, she’s playing a mix of the Emperor from Star Wars, the Wicked Witch, Grampa Simpson and the bad lady from Sleeping Beauty. It’s amazing she turns in such a good performance, especially since Shanley wrote most of her dialogue and reactions to get laughs. Her funniest line, the one where Doubt becomes a hilariously turgid melodramatic turd, is actually not for laughs, which goes to show how aware Shanley is of his work.
Sadly, Hoffman isn’t good. His performance shows off his ability–Shanley’s even got him making voices–but the role’s faulty.
Amy Adams is actually pretty darn good, but watching her act opposite Streep and Hoffman… it’s watching a personality (Amy Adams as a naive nun) against actual craftspersons. A trailer for one of Adams’s upcoming pictures played before Doubt and the biggest difference were the vows and the outfit.
Viola Davis has one major scene and is fantastic. Streep’s quiet for most of the scene too, which allows for comparison between the two–Davis wins.
Until that absurdist, goofy last moment, Doubt isn’t terrible. Streep and Adams pull it through–and Hoffman’s fine for the first half, until he’s all of a sudden got to play a real person (something Shanley apparently refuses to write). Alice Drummond’s got a thanklessly small role and she’s awesome. Howard Shore’s music and Roger Deakins’s photography are both excellent.
So where does it go wrong? With Shanley. I’ve never seen someone more ignorant of his or her own work.
Directed by John Patrick Shanley; screenplay by Shanley, based on his play; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Dylan Tichenor; music by Howard Shore; production designer, David Gropman; produced by Scott Rudin and Mark Roybal; released by Miramax Films.
Starring Meryl Streep (Sister Aloysius), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Father Flynn), Amy Adams (Sister James), Viola Davis (Mrs. Miller), Joseph Foster (Donald Miller), Alice Drummond (Sister Veronica), Audrie Neenan (Sister Raymond), Susan Blommaert (Mrs. Carson), Carrie Preston (Christine Hurley) and John Costelloe (Warren Hurley).