By Matthew Sorrento | December 26, 2008

I wonder if there is an ulterior motive to this film: the credits may as well read Hoffman vs. Streep. This is the meeting of two titans of the big screen, the latter with countless Oscar nominations to her name, who needs no introduction; the former, a journeyman of the stage (and even a producer-director there as well) who has triumphed in various on-screen roles – as a character actor in intelligent, high-concept entries and a face that helps realize numerous character-driven dramas. Each performer can steal the spotlight, but now one must submit.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman gets a grand entrance. In adapting his work for the big screen, writer-director John Patrick Shanley reformats his Pulitzer-winning play’s opening scene, a sermon on the eponymous emotion, as a platform for Hoffman. Here the actor makes his father Flynn an introspective, charismatic church leader, and thus an unlikely candidate for suspicion. Yet, as Hoffman’s Flynn recites eloquent, inspirational lines, the focus moves to a low shot of a watchdog nun, Sister Aloysius (Streep), rooting out misbehavior in the young members of the parish. Her subtle movement, led by what must be an ever-watchful eye out of frame, leaves us no doubt that the contender approaches. Even if Hoffman has the floor, a showdown is sure to come.

And the film’s crisis point – in which school principal Sister Aloysius, with her absolute certainty, confronts Hoffman’s priest, now suspected of sexually abusing a student – realizes all the tension. According to Lynn Hirschberg’s December 19 New York Times profile on Hoffman, Streep alleviated the tension before filming by whispering to him, just within the crews’ earshot, “I know you did it,” likely with that Streep stare that can veer towards the humorous in no time, and in her trademark whisper, “I’m gonna kick your butt.” Hoffman has confessed that he felt his own doubt throughout production, as if one false step in his performance would throw such delicate scenes into absurdity.

But how the two actors invigorate each other. By building up to a grand showdown, “Doubt” turns into a simple yet sublime acting exercise, just as tense as its stage inspiration. Pulitzer prize or no, Shanley was a risky choice for the director’s chair, this being his first effort since the tone-deaf comedy “Joe vs. the Volcano.” (Talk about an odd IMDb listing.) But Shanley proves that this story runs deep within his consciousness, in that he can realize it so deftly in different formats. The two successful versions of “Doubt” prove its father to be a true dramatic storyteller.

Not that Shanley’s film is perfect overall, though many scenes reach near perfection. The story’s major plot developments are followed by turns in the weather (i.e., textbook examples of the pathetic fallacy) with flourishes in the score, as if Shanley felt he needed to be on the storm-watch to open up his minimalist stage drama for the screen. A major misuse comes when Shanley puts on screen an image that’s a piece of haunting poetry in the play. Father Flynn’s second sermon – the ideas for which he gets when first accused by Sister Aloysius – contains a parable about a pillow torn open atop a building. When the parable relates the futility of collecting all of the flying feathers, Father Flynn drops an abrupt moral to the story: for those feathers are “gossip.”

True enough, no adaptation could top Shanley’s device used for this scene in his stage version. In the original “Doubt,” Father Flynn’s sermons appear in isolation, as dramatic monologues that haunt the remaining one-act drama like absolute truths – words worthy of the influence that such men are granted in the Catholic church. By cutting away to expressionistic shots of a slow feather-storm in the film version, however, Shanley gives us more when less would have spoke multitudes.

And Shanley is far from subtle when detailing the power relations in the church. It’s worth reminding audiences of the sexist strains in Catholicism, in which nuns are made to serve while Fathers lead. One jump-cut of two groups dining – the first of the church’s men bellowing laughter over red meat, draft beer, and cigarettes that shifts to the nuns dining as if at a funeral – is as abrupt as a sharp ruler to the wrist. Meanwhile, the hyper-conservative Sister Aloysius may be to blame for such repressed conduct. For Father Flynn wants to “open up” his church – Bronx, circa 1962 – to new freedoms, and hence he becomes a target for Sister Aloysius’ “certainty.”

And this crux is where “Doubt” finds its culminating ambiguity, intriguing and most rewarding for the story’s purpose but, alas, admittedly frustrating for some viewers. In the story, both parties become victims: Sister Aloysius, to the repressions of an institution that has her stifled and questioning any new idea; and Father Flynn, to the suspicions of a priest thought to be deviating in more conservative eyes. It may very well be that the Catholic Church – one of the most powerful organizations in the world, let’s not forget – protected numerous sex offenders through reassignment. Concerning Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius, the question of who is to blame will never be solved, since Catholicism now sits under the eternal storm of this controversy. In a way, it has made its own bed by fusing sexuality with guilt and, in turn, warping many homosexual men into sexual deviation – not an excuse for abuse, on any count, by a means for understanding. Yet at the same time, a caring religious leader, who happens to be celibate, is forever damned in such a situation. Before the mainstream media broadcasted counts of abuse by priests, both occurrences and paranoia of it ran rampant in the Catholic church. It’s no surprise that Father Flynn resorts to the power the church gives him over even an administrative nun like Sister Aloysius, for the weight of the entire situations has fallen on his shoulders.

“Doubt” sure has a lot to account for by taking on such a subject. And, thankfully, the film becomes a multi-textured drama of ideas realized in a simple, concise form. While the stage drama is under 60 pages, structurally it plays like a mystery/avenger film (centered on the vengeful principal-Sister), as does the movie, though admittedly grounded in character-based drama. Sister Aloysius’s goal to condemn corruption is a frustrating one, in that it leaves no resolution, while involving a trusting younger teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams, with reliable pathos but routine), and the African American boy’s mother, played by a nerve-shattering Viola Davis. Davis has only one scene, but in it she summons as much pathos as do the star leads in the film’s payoff moments. When her character urges Sister Aloysius to bury the scandal, for fear of her abusive husband and her “sexually different” son’s well-being in a racist world, it appears that Steep almost drops her own character when struck in the face by such a performance. Yet, in the end, no one gets upstaged: in three triumphant roles, everyone is vanquished.

Exhausting yet invigorating, it’s a drama one witnesses more than just views. As surefire as our modern crisis of faith, the film’s truths are just as frustrating: all certainty is haunted by “Doubt.”

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