SPOILER ALERT: I will discuss elements of this incredible movie's plot and characters. As such, I encourage you to go watch the movie before reading this review.
About a year ago, I was invited back to my alma mater to speak at a small seminar on truthtelling in media. In our age of social media and chants of "fake news" the truth has taken a few hits. In my speech, I discussed two movies that exemplified, in my opinion, how our culture should interact with the truth. One was Spotlight, the Best Picture winner at the 88th Academy Awards. The other was Doubt, a film directed by John Patrick Shanley and adapted from his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play.
Doubt is a film about the truth and how it is not only elusive, but it is even impossible to find sometimes. In those moments, we are left in a position that is vague and full of nuance. We are left with our doubts. This should not keep us from searching out the truth, but it should give us a reverence for judgment. In my speech, I compared this to Spotlight to show that, when the threads of the truth are unearthed, they should be pursued and proclaimed at all costs. That is especially true in situations of a criminally-sensitive nature. Spotlight focuses on those situations in the context of the molestation scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston and around the globe. Doubt focuses on a similar story, but in a slightly different light.
The film takes place in 1960s-era New York at a Catholic parish in the Bronx. We meet the priest, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour-Hoffman) as he is giving a homily about the nature of doubt as it relates to faith. That the film starts here (after the opening scene of the altar boys preparing for mass) is a point worth remembering. Father Flynn talks about how the faithful can be companions in doubt - how doubt can bring people together. We learn that it is 1964, as Father Flynn alludes to the JFK assassination the year before.
In the crowd listening to Father Flynn, we first meet Sister James (Amy Adams) and Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Watch their facial expressions and non-verbal cues. From the very outset of this film, the characters tell us so much about themselves, and they sometimes accomplish this without speaking. Sister James is young and innocent. Sister Aloysius - the principal of the Catholic school - is hard and intimidating.
Early on in the film, Sister Aloysius makes it clear to the other sisters that she has some apprehensions about Father Flynn's sermon. Specifically, she wonders where his preoccupation with doubt originated. (Side note: For a film that deals in such heavy terrain for much of its runtime, these scenes with the interplay between Sister Aloysius and the others have many humourous moments.)
Sister James does not suspect anything of Father Flynn, until she sees him putting away an undershirt into a student's locker after that student had been sent - alone - to Father Flynn's office during class. When the boy returned to class, Sister James noticed alcohol on his breath. That student is Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) - the first African-American student in the school. As the movie continues, it is clear that both Sister Aloysius and Sister James suspect that Father Flynn has molested Donald.
In one of this movie's many incredibly-acted scenes, the two nuns confront Father Flynn under the guise of planning for the school's Christmas program. Father Flynn becomes increasingly agitated once the real reason for the meeting is revealed. Then, Father Flynn has a confession - he found Donald drinking altar wine and had been trying to keep it a secret so that Donald could continue as an altar boy. Sister James accepts this. Sister Aloysius does not.
And the film moves forward with this triumverate of doubt. Father Flynn insists his innocence. Sister James believes him, but she is torn. Sister Aloysius is certain in her judgement.
Another nuance is added once Donald Miller's mother (Viola Davis) enters the fray. In maybe the best scene in the film, she and Sister Aloysius discuss Donald and the alleged wrongdoing of Father Flynn. To see Streep and Davis go toe to toe in this scene is nothing short of incredible.
At all points, I was struck by how well-written this film is. As I said before, director John Patrick Shanley won the Pulitzer Prize for his stage version (titled Doubt: A Parable). You can easily see why. The characters are so well-written. We learn about them through the slightest cues - like the fact that Father Flynn likes to keep his fingernails long and Sister Aloysius has a vehement disdain for ballpoint pens.
I did not grow up in a Catholic school environment, but I did attend a private, Baptist school from 1st grade until I graduated high school. I found that I could relate with much of the goings on at the school. I certainly never came across any wrongdoing of the kind alleged in Doubt, but the teachers and staff of the school all felt familiar to me.
At the same time as the main plot, we have an undercurrent of old traditionalism (Sister Aloysius) set up against new ideas (Father Flynn). Going back to the scene between Father Flynn, Sister James and Sister Aloysius, there is an interaction where Father Flynn and Sister Aloysius discuss the value of maybe including one "secular" song in the Christmas pageant. This is of course before the meeting turns to the allegations against Father Flynn.
From there, the film begins to tackle a comparison between certainty and doubt. In this case, there are many reasons to believe that Father Flynn did in fact committ this horrible crime. But they are all circumstantial, and the allegations are never proven. That's not to say Father Flynn is not guilty, but it simply can't be proven.
Another interesting note about the script is that no one ever uses overt descriptors of what Father Flynn is alleged to have done. The hushed whispers and sideways glances communicate everything.
I wonder if this film might have specific value amid the cultural discussions that are happening in our world today. Some might see this film and lament that this man's life is being ruined based on unfounded claims. Others might say it would be immoral to allow him to continue to be around these children when there are reasons to believe he committed this heinous crime.
As I watch the film, my thoughts drift to who deserves the benefit of the doubt. Father Flynn is a successful man. Does he deserve the right to be innocent until proven guilty? Surely, he does. But I would rather give the benefit of the doubt to the person who is not in the position of power (in this case, Donald). There is certainly enough here to warrant investigation, rather than being swept under the rug.
Is Father Flynn deserving of his fate in the film? The answer may be no. Father Flynn never admits to the allegations, but he is still forced to leave the parish based upon the rumblings of Sister Aloysius. At this point, I wonder what Sister Aloysius feels. Is it a victory that Father Flynn has left the parish even though he quickly finds a new one? If he really did do what Sister Aloysius has accused him of, won't he do it again? Or, does she now doubt whether Father Flynn even did anything wrong in the first place?
In the film's closing scene, we see Sister Aloysius wrestling with her doubt. I don't know which of the above questions were floating through her mind - maybe all of them. I know I was certainly thinking of each question as the film came to a close.
And therein lies the genius of this film. This is not melodrama or the investigation of a criminal case unfolding before our eyes. That is part of the story. But it is not the main one. This film is an exploration of the nature of doubt - the tension that results from being in the middle of a situation with no clear answers. What are we to do in those situations? What does God think of doubt?
In that moving final scene, Sister Aloysius admits that she lied when she confronted Father Flynn (in a scene that takes place towards the end of the film) and told him that she had called a nun at a former parish asking about why he had left that particular ministry so soon. She told Father Flynn that this nun had confirmed her suspicions. In reality, Sister Aloysius never made such a call. However, she believes she still did the right thing, because Father Flynn never would have resigned if the allegations were unfounded.
And so we are left with no closure, no certainty and mountains of doubt. I can assure you that 10 people could watch this movie and come to 10 different conclusions. I find that to be a sign of a movie that is both well-written and full of interesting nuance. But, at the end of the day, we see in our current culture the need to understand how to wrestle with issues of truth, doubt and nuance.
I am not here to say that I have the answers, but I think having the conversation is necessary.
On top of that, I think this may just be the most well-acted film I've ever seen. You have Meryl Streep giving one of her great performances, Philip Seymour-Hoffman putting his incredible talents on display, Amy Adams showing that - at the time - she was an actress on the rise and Viola Davis going toe-to-toe with arguably the greatest actress of all-time.
This film is incredible, and it always causes me to think and consider. As I'm sure you've been able to tell by now from reading my reviews, those are exactly the kinds of films that I love and cherish.
Note on content: There is no sexual content on screen, but the film's plot does focus on allegations of sexual abuse. Much of the intensity or possibly upsetting content in the film centers around this storyline. There is some mild profanity, but the film is rated PG-13 and should be appropriate for mature audiences.