Despite its title, Doubt, the movie and presumably the play (which latter I have not read or seen), offers a good many answers—and only one question.
First, one thing the film accomplishes with dramatic clarity is to distinguish between pedophilia and homosexuality. Anyone (say, Rick Warren and his admirers) who has any doubts on this matter should see Doubt. The film handily separates the two issues—though I won’t say how.
Second, the film answers the question of which is better, doubt or certainty. Though some audiences may find the film’s answer equivocal, I think it’s fairly direct—doubt is better in building community and a connection with others; certainty is better in reaching short-term solutions to immediate problems—while tending to polarize members of a community and often failing to make needed changes to a larger system of corruption.
Third, the film answers the question of whether it’s all right to do something bad in order to accomplish something that’s good. Yes. And no. Here the answer sounds exactly like what you’d expect your priest to offer you—the same guy who tells you that God does answer every prayer; only sometimes the answer is no.
The question that remains unanswered at the end of Doubt is of what, if anything, is Father Flynn guilty. Even here, the film offers heavy hints—but ultimately the hints support a multitude of answers, equally plausible.
But neither these answers nor the intriguing brainteaser is the reason to see Doubt.
You should see Doubt for one main reason: Meryl Streep.
How this actress continues to astound is, well, um, astounding. My dear friend Mary and I have deified Streep as a goddess in our own private religion. What is remarkable about her talent is that she accomplishes both ends of the movie star’s typical dilemma—do I lose myself in the character? or do I make myself impossible not to watch? Streep, of course, does both … in virtually every film she’s made … and nowhere better than in the role of Sister Aloysius in this film.
The wonder of this incredible actor is not how she has earned an astounding number (14!) of Oscar nominations, but rather why the fuck she hasn’t won them all … and even more. That she has won only two is a stain on the reputation of the Academy Awards.
Sure, other actors are in Doubt and they all do remarkable work, blah blah blah. No disrespect intended—I love them all. But without Meryl Streep, this movie would have been merely a reasonably strong film adaptation of a stage play. With Streep, it is something of an event—life altering as well as brain teasing.
I also want to add some good words for the writer and director John Patrick Shanley. Having twenty years ago won an Oscar for his original screenplay Moonstruck, Shanley takes his first shot as a director in this, the adaptation of his successful stage play starring Cherry Jones.
I do think the last minute of the film suffers from an overly theatrical gesture and an arguably incongruous change of heart (or, at any rate, affect). But the film up to that point is nearly flawless on a number of levels. It beautifully captures the setting of mid-1960s America. It is a visually arresting movie.
It maintains a single stark tone for 104 minutes—relies heavily on dialogue, even monologue (three sermons!)—while remaining entirely cinematic.
Especially early in the film, it makes lucid though only implicit comparisons between post-JFK-assassination angst and post-9/11 angst.
It captures, too, the still problematic way American society treats its minority groups—how lack of understanding or tolerance quickly evolves into violence, both physical and emotional. It portrays the marginalized position of women in the Church—most eloquently in crosscut scenes of priests chortling over their red wine and rare steaks and nuns silently sipping their milk and—what was that shit? —porridge?
We see in this film that abuse is not just a matter of sexual abuse or physical brutality. Spiritual, psychological abuse, including self-abuse, appears to be the most damning form of abuse of all.
Doubt is a film that believers and infidels can alike enjoy and learn from. It touches on much more than Christian faith. It addresses the ways we know the truth, any truth, and the responsibilities we must take on, on the basis of that knowledge.