Z To A: Doubt (2008)

(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)

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Plot Synopsis: Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the rigid and fear-inspiring principal of the Saint Nicholas Church School, suffers an extreme dislike for the progressive and popular parish priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Looking for wrongdoing in every corner, Sister Aloysius believes she’s uncovered the ultimate sin when she hears Father Flynn has taken a special interest in a troubled boy. But without proof, the only certainty is doubt.

– From DVD Production Notes

(Spoilers Ahead)

Like my previous entry for Down By Law, Doubt appears rather straightforward. Based on a play by John Patrick Shanley (who also directs this version), the plot focuses solely on four characters talking to each other. The catch is that this simplicity is deceptive. Shanley says that the last character to enter the play is the audience, who will leave the theater and debate about what they’ve seen and heard.

At the forefront of Doubt is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), who perfectly embodies the nun children fear and hate in Catholic school. Is there any context for why Beauvier is the way she is? Not really, but there is plenty you can infer from the way she behaves and the little she says about herself.

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The same could be said for the conflict at the heart of the story. Beauvier’s dislike and suspicions of Father Flynn (Hoffman) lead to an accusation of sexual abuse. It could be a case of being right… or perhaps wanting something horrible to be true. By the time she accuses him we know Flynn is charismatic and popular at the school. He is also interested in reform and being friendlier with the students.

To say the least these are things that Beauvier disagree with, so her convictions may be political as well as emotional. Once Flynn is suspected of misconduct she sees everything he does as evidence. These range from the little she knows about him to anything she construes as homosexual, including his long fingernails and a preference for having three lumps of sugar in his tea.

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Is Beauvier justified in her judgments? That’s where it gets tricky, since making assumptions are a large part of human nature. At the other end of the spectrum is Sister James (Amy Adams), who is the youngest teacher at the school and somewhat of a protege of Beauvier’s. She doesn’t want to make assumptions for the worse, although she’s the one who reports the incident that makes Flynn appear guilty. The amount of discomfort she feels afterwards is immediate.

“It is unsettling to look at people with suspicion,” she says. “I feel less close to God.”

It isn’t long before Beauvier strikes at the possible root of James’ problem: “You just want things to be resolved so you can have simplicity back.” This isn’t lost on James, who spends the rest of the film caught in the crossfire between her two superiors.

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When I first saw the film I felt the same as James- unsure of what I had seen and constantly tugged between one possibility or the other. Flynn can come across as genuine or manipulative; Beauvier as coldly ethical or vicious. It’s hard to settle on one- maybe it’s both for these characters- and the performances are nuanced and complex enough to keep you guessing.

Then a fourth character enters the mix. The only way I can describe Viola Davis’s screen time in this film is devastating, pulling the rug under Beauvier’s confidence and adding an entirely new and disturbing dimension to the story. Playing the mother of the student in question, she simply states that she doesn’t care about Father Flynn’s intentions (“Let him have him then”). There is shame and self-preservation in her words, but it’s clear she has no interest in coming to her son’s aid, let alone help Beauvier’s case.

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Either way, it doesn’t matter. Beauvier proves to be relentless as she and Flynn have their final confrontation in her office. The outcome isn’t as important as what both of them say, what they imply and how they react to one another’s accusations.

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For my part, no matter how many times I watch Doubt I’m unsure of what I’ve seen. I have an idea of what might have happened but I don’t have convictions. With Beauvier I feel like I have a clearer idea of where the truth lies. Not surprisingly, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s performance as Father Flynn is harder to discern. His behavior and expressions indicate guilt, so much that in one scene he holds completely still but flushes. However, there are other moments that imply something else is going on, that he has been genuinely misunderstood or compromised.

I purchased this film after Hoffman’s death. In fact, since his passing I’ve accumulated a few of them because someone’s work is all you have once they’re gone. When it came to Father Flynn he chose what to play but never revealed the priest’s guilt or innocence. “That history is mine,” he said during an interview in 2008. “I would never share it because it will destroy the experience of the movie-goer.”

It’s the audience involvement that gives Doubt its longevity. The situation lives in your imagination more than hundreds of other films you see, simply because there is no resolution. The last scene captures that feeling in a way that makes perfect sense, and reminds me that oftentimes there are no answers. There is only belief.

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