Saturday, January 3, 2009

Doubt Review

Overall Grade: A-

It is no secret to those that know me that Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman are my favorite working actors today. Many of you have heard the rumors, and yes it is true that I have a mini-shrine (not in a blasphemy manner) dedicated to both the actors in my room (thank you Julie for that). So when I heard that they were both going to star in the same movie, I immediately took notice. When I heard that the film was about a possible pedophile priest (Hoffman) and a self-righteous nun (Streep), my expectations dramatically declined. I thought to myself, “Should I really expect an even-handed treated of religion and the church from left-wing Hollywood?” So it was with great reservations that I approached Doubt.

As it turns out, Doubt is one of the more even handed and thoughtful movies I have seen all year. The writer/director John Patrick Shanley (who also wrote the original broadway play of Doubt), eschews broad generalization and consistently surprised me with balanced characterizations. For those unaware, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father O’Flynn, a priest, who is eventually suspected of molesting one of his students. Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, principal of St. Nicholas School. The film chronicles Streeps investigation and discussion (more like interrogation) into the possible molestation.

Here it would be easy to demonize either the priest or the nun, making Streep on a self-righteous witch hunt or Hoffman a unrighteous homosexual masquerading as a man of god. Instead, Shanley uses this tendency to generalize as an opportunity for a discussion. Instead of allowing us to just sneer at Streep’s conservatism, her views are turned into the basis for an argument of several issues, one being justice vs. mercy. For although the progressives (Amy Adams and Hoffman) are arguing for more mercy and friendliness in the classroom, the film is willing to allow Streeps discipline a fair hearing.

In one particular moment, Sister James (played well by Amy Adams) bursts out against Streep saying something along the lines of, “You run this place like a prison and treat the students like they are inmates”. In any other movie, the scene would have ended quickly thereafter, our underdog getting a verbal throwdown in and our audience getting a chance to release our frustration with Streep and her self-righteousness. However, Doubt lets the scene play out a little longer, giving Streep a chance to bring some levity to the conversation, asking Adams bluntly, “Do you really think the students are treated as inmates?” To which Adams must reply, “No, they actually seem quite happy, but it wouldn’t hurt to be more friendly.” In this way, Shanley cuts through easy victories over straw men and allows the viewer to truly engage in a discussion of the two views.

The film is full of moments like those, and added all together they compose a wonderful film. Streep and Hoffman (you should play a drinking game with how many times their name appears in this review) give performances full of passion, power, and small characterizations. Their work here is as good as anything they have done before. Even though it may seem like fawning, I recommend that you pay particular attention to the scenes between Hoffman and Streep. The way they use the space in the room and the objects in the room to convey their current emotion and status during the discussion. Their expressions, and the control of their eye movements in particular are really quite astounding. I don’t want to give much more away about the film, because I think that half the enjoyment of the film is not knowing what issues they cover until its brought up (at least it was for me). Viola Davis, in a small but especially powerful turn, adds an unexpected and great head scratcher of an issue just near the end of the film.

Doubt is not a epic drama, but it is a superbly acted story that requires the viewer to engage with its messages. Much has been said about Milk and its ability to politically inspire, but I would throw Doubt’s message out there as the most helpful to politics of our time. For sure there are things we can be certain of, but why not find unity in being open and honest about the doubts we do have, and things we are less than certain about? Although it seems paradoxical, a world in which we acknowledge our doubts and uncertainties might just be a world closer and unified.

1 comments:

ChillwithWill said...

Without a doubt, the last scene was what sold me on the movie. ;)

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