Directed by: John Patrick Shanley
Written by: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Viola Davis, Joseph Foster
Rooting out abuse theoretically should be something everyone should be fine with, as any hurt being inflicted upon others should cease. However, when the powerful members of a society are the ones doing the abuse, the dynamics become all the more complicated. The Catholic Church has come to its reckoning with this issue and its priests, which Doubt attempts to shine a light on.
In the 1960s, a particular church in the Bronx, New York held Sunday services along with a school for the parishioner’s children. Sister James (Amy Adams) serves as one of the nuns and teaches at the school under the guidance of the harsh principal, Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). When Sister James becomes suspicious of the priest, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) making advances on one of the students, she brings it up to Sister Aloysius.
The dynamics with the Catholic Church has evolved over time with how priests and nuns have been viewed by the public. For centuries priests have been seen as shepherds of the people and individuals to trust more than any other adult, which allowed for unchecked abuse to occur. Nuns typically ran the schools and had no problem using a yardstick to get the respect they sought from the students. Some of these perceptions have shifted, but they get highlighted and manipulated in this fantastic feature film to tell a truly saddening story with several twists that only complicate the matter more.
The film begins with parishioners walking towards the church for Sunday mass with Father Flynn delivering a homily. While the homily gets delivered, it pans to Sister James listening intently to the words of the priest while Sister Aloysius walks around smacking the heads of children who are talking or falling asleep during the service. Anyone who has attended Catholic church or school knows of that one nun who Sister Aloysius represents. The one unafraid to yell and hit a child with the parents being okay with it. Everything at the beginning of the film indicates Sister Aloysius has a rigidity that makes the eventual observation Sister James brings to her quite concerning. Where the film goes when Sister James makes her concern known speaks as a testament of this film with how it moves through its narrative in an engaging and unexpected manner.
Sister Aloysius begins as such a cold person but then shifts in such a warm way where her ruthless demeanor gets utilized in a different manner. As someone who has seen many films regarding these scandals within the Catholic Church where a formula plays out based on historical precedent, Doubt always managed zagged when I thought it would zig. With each conversation held following the observation made by Sister James, more details and information begins to unravel that make complete sense but further complicates what should be a straightforward process. It left whatever would occur next to be a complete surprise, which felt exhilarating.
Nothing about what occurs can be described as simple because new revelations show that exposing this priest might do so much collateral damage to others, which turns all eyes to Donald Miller (Joseph Foster). Not only does he get the attention of the priest, but he’s also the first Black student at this school. This has its own ramifications as Sister Aloysius points out, she expected some racism directed towards him considering the parish mostly serves Italian and Irish families. These communities do not have the greatest record with racism, but the damage occurs from the priest. Bringing in Donald’s mother (Viola Davis) adds yet another layer further complicating what exposing this priest far and wide would do to all others involved. What occurs in this story cannot be described as anything other than a tragedy for the characters involved because no matter what occurs there will be long-lasting pain emotionally and spiritually. The melancholy makes itself apparent as any win-win situation gets thrown out the window.
For a film taking on such a sad topic, the pacing of the story moves at lightning speed because of the confrontations and the tension involved with them. Dread flows through the story as the adults try to play things off maturely but at some point, there will be an impasse and when it arrives in the story, it creates fireworks. These tense moments present ripe opportunities for the actors to fully unleash and truly put on a show for the audience.
Watching Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman go toe-to-toe felt like a treat humanity has not earned because they are electric whenever they share a space. Seeing them exchange the pensive yet harsh dialogue provided to them continually raised the tension of those moments to the maximum. Hoffman knows how to give a good yell and he was sensational but Meryl Streep was just on a different level. It’s easy to take her for granted, but my goodness, this woman is a force of nature when on-screen. She carries a level of composure and coldness with this character that only continually opens up to show the true warmth of this nun. The shift she has from the beginning to the end shows a character being nothing like what anyone could perceive her to be and it just might be Streep’s finest work.
While Hoffman and Streep get the biggest moments to shine, Amy Adams and Viola Davis also get scenes to display their immense talent as well. It all culminates into a truly thrilling and saddening experience that gets right at the political means of exposing a priest for deviant crimes. Doubt provides the perspective of what it looks like for nuns to take this approach and uses what could be a bleak story into something filled with genuine concern for those involved. A truly astounding and impactful motion picture jam-packed with moments that will make you gasp from its revelations.