Saturday, January 3, 2009

Doubt (2008, John Patrick Shanley)

The popular line on Doubt is that it’s overly theatrical, more a filmed play than an out-and-out movie. Yet I’d have to disagree- while it’s true that Shanley does little to “open up” the action in a traditional sense- I’d say the theatricality of the film isn’t rigorous enough. Doubt is first and foremost a movie about ideas, about differing worldviews that clash at the time when their conflict would create the most fallout. From the beginning, it’s clear that Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) represents the more hard-line dogmatic Catholicism that one found pre-Vatican II, while Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) embodies the more progressive, humanistic sort that came later. Naturally, the two don’t exactly get along- he thinks she needs to change with the times, while she distrusts his motives in reaching out to his parishioners and students, particularly the school’s one African-American student, Donald. Once Sister Aloysius seizes upon some circumstantial evidence to determine in her mind that Father Flynn has abused the boy, it’s pretty much over for him, as she knows that even the breath of scandal could end his life in the priesthood. It’s in this plot strand that the casting of Hoffman really pays off- putting a more conventional movie star in the role would have made the character too trustworthy, but Hoffman, who has never shied from playing oddballs and perverts, has an ambiguous enough presence to create in the viewers’ minds a suspicion that he might be hiding something, even if it’s not the misdeed Sister Aloysius has pinned on him. And Hoffman responds with one of his best performances, a fascinating portrait of a man driven by his faith and his desire to do good, while being torn by demons that were just as unspeakable then as his alleged abuse. Streep, for her part, is also fine, especially when she lets her humanity and limitations shine through, and the film’s showstopper scene, which pits Sister Aloysius’ absolute morality against the more situational kind espoused by Donald’s mother (Viola Davis, excellent), is obviously a master class in this kind of thing. The biggest drawback of the film is Shanley’s direction, which might have been effective had he been content to accentuate the theatricality of the text, thereby casting into sharp relief his ideas and the characters who espouse them. Unfortunately, Shanley relies far too heavily on loaded close-ups, dramatic weather changes, and above all severe tilts to underline his points. It’s sad, seeing a writer in such command of his ideas turn into a filmmaker who is so unsure these ideas will hit home that he needs to point them out to the audience every chance he gets. Rating: 6 out of 10.

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