'Tis the season to be gloomy. Maybe it's the parting gifts of a waning Bush zeitgeist, but Hollywood is unloading double barrels of misery this season, pelting us with Oscar-bait dramas that are guaranteed to harsh your holiday mellow. Pedophilia, Nazis, suicide and the not-so quiet desperation of the suburbs will soon be playing at your local cineplex. Thank goodness many of them are damn fine films.
John Patrick Shanley's big-screen adaptation of his award-winning play Doubt kicks things off, and while he probably should have handed directing duties over to someone with subtler touch, the movie boasts enough fiery theatrics and lip-smacking scenery-chewing to satisfy adult audiences.
Set in Brooklyn in 1964, the metaphorical fisticuffs fly as tyrannical Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep) becomes convinced that jovially progressive priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) has sexually abused a 12-year-old altar boy. The ensuing confrontations become a theatrical landscape where moral relativism is pitted against religious certainty, patriarchy is challenged and Vatican I goes mano a mano with Vatican II.
Whether it's Aloysius' hatred of hair clips and ballpoint pens or Flynn's compassionate desire to make church and congregation as one, Shanley's carefully plotted ambiguity hopes to confront the shortcomings of doubt and belief. It's not an entirely successful ploy, since his script so diligently hides the truth that his supposition — that doubt is reasonable and conviction is dangerous — becomes a foregone conclusion. Without enough evidence for either side of the argument (the stage play was less indefinite) the conceit feels artificial. Still, there are plenty of meaty moments to chew on, especially Father Flynn's terrific sermon on gossip and the film's clever allusions to domestic spying — Sister Aloysius defends surveillance as something that frightens "only the ones who are up to no good."
The egos at war in Doubt are, of course, colossal, and the A-list cast mostly rises to the occasion. There are times when Hoffman seems determined to hammer Streep into submission with his character-conscious bombast and Streep skirts perilously close to camp, but both bring appropriate gravitas to the conflict. Streep in particular, leavens her performance with canny grace notes that undercut the histrionics. By the film's end, she displays an emotionally devastating moment of such raw vulnerability that her Oscar berth is all but assured. Similarly, supporting actress Amy Adams is perfectly cast as a conflicted young nun and Viola Davis delivers a show-stopping cameo as the mother of Father Flynn's affections, making an unsettling case for trading one evil for another.
As effective as Davis is, her presence is as troubling as it is provocative. While the ideas Shanley presents are laudably complex, he opens himself to accusations of racial condescension by making the boy in question both black and gay, then sidelining him in the narrative. It'd be fair to say that he becomes little more than a dramatic prop, exploited for the weight of his minority status.
It's Shanley's decision to commandeer the director's seat that is the movie's greatest misstep, however. This year has seen several talented writers — Charlie Kaufman and Alan Ball come immediately to mind — undermine their work by getting behind the camera. While hardly tragic, Shanley's approach is fussy and obvious. The big confrontations feel stagey rather than the inevitable outcome of mounting tension, the camera angles are deliberately askew, and his bald metaphors — rain dribbling down window panes, swirling leaves caught in a gust of wind, lightbulbs popping on cue — are straight out of Filmmaking 101. Compare Shanley's approach to that of craftsman Ron Howard's work on Frost/Nixon, another film with theatrical origins, and the differences are stark.
Despite its shortcomings, however, Doubt has the undeniable ability to reel you into its troubling upheaval while offering an effective — if stacked — view of conviction and the crisis of faith. The film's got enough melodramatic juice to satisfy serious-minded viewers and entice Academy voters.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.