January 21, 2009
Campbell CA — Camera 7
104 Minutes — December 12, 2008
Drama / Mystery
John Patrick Shanley [Moonstruck; The January Man; Joe Versus The Volcano; Alive]

My overriding impression of DOUBT? Boring.

Streep, Hoffman, Adams. Great cast. But it’s just so slow moving and ponderous. And every time something important is about to happen, the wind blows or rain hits a windowpane or a tree branch crashes down in the courtyard. And then the music swells.

It’s 1964 in Brooklyn. Hoffman is a Catholic Priest (hazard alert). Streep is the principal of the attached school. Amy Adams is the naive, wide-eyed character that we’re supposed to chuckle at and then feel for. Adams thinks she sees Hoffman put a boy’s shirt back into his locker. This boy is the only black kid in a sea of white, which is the excuse Hoffman uses when confronted with the suspicion that he plied the boy with alcohol. But not just any alcohol, mind you; the holy communion wine, the very blood of Christ. Viola Davis plays the boy’s mother who is remarkably nonchalant about the accusation, preferring to hide her head in the sand until summer when her boy graduates.

Streep is on the warpath against Hoffman and the two play several loud, spittle-rattling scenes where they try to scare the other one into backing off. We know Streep is the humorless disciplinarian because we see her walking the aisles of the church scolding anyone slouching or whispering while the sermon is taking place. She strikes fear in the children and other nuns alike. She is a cartoon movie archetype along the lines of the guy in Lean On Me (I’m the HNIC, now), and every other film about school and an evil paddling headmaster.

Hoffman appears to be kind, he connects with the kids, he write sermons that don’t immediately cause his congregation to sleep. But what earthly reason does he have for taking such a shine to the young black boy? We have two choices: 1) he’s a closeted homosexual predator who can’t wait to add another notch on his priestly bedpost; OR 2) he’s a caring priest who ministers to his congregation. Which one do you think the film favors?

We aren’t given any reasons for the actions that the characters take. Except maybe Amy Adams. She sees something and she goes to her superior to discuss it. Fine. Streep makes it her mission to kick Hoffman out of the parish. We are only given hints about the characters’ pasts. Hoffman is apparently at his third church in a short period of time. With 2008 eyes, this is a warning sign. Not so much back in 1964. Streep’s character is a widow who has known life outside the convent, but now finds herself ruling one. She is probably the only non-virgin on the campus.

If there’s a well-rounded and nuanced character, it’s Viola Davis as the mother. The boy has an abusive father, the mother thinks that the boy is gay (although you can bet that word is never used by anyone in this film), and if the priest needs a little loving while he protects the boy from the racist bullies in the hallway, well then, that’s a small price to pay. Davis hits a “if my nose runs and I don’t wipe it during a crying scene I’ll get an Oscar just like Jane Fonda in Klute” move perfectly. Then when we’ve been sufficiently mezmerized by her dripping nose, she miraculously finds a kleenex, wipes herself, and heads off to work like nothing happened. The words that the two women say to each other in the Davis v. Streep walk-and-talk are pretty good. But then the whole scene is ruined by the “foreboding wind of doom” that causes several dozen leaves to press up against Streeps legs. God help us.

So let’s see, Streep thinks that the priest is guilty, Hoffman maintains his innocense, Adams is first sure one way, then the other, and Davis doesn’t really see the big deal either way. You see, they all have DOUBT about what happened. Adams’ doubt puts her on Hoffman’s side and Streep finds a way to keep her doubt at bay. So we all know what the dilema is.

Wait a second, I have an idea. Why doesn’t someone ask the kid what happened? He’s not five years old, he’s in 8th grade! Wouldn’t he be able to at least give an impression about what happened or didn’t happen in the vestry? Is he so in love with the Father that he’d lie under questioning? He’s the only other witness.

I just don’t get it. Any verbal fireworks this film had were more than countered by the clumsy staging, and hit-me-over-the-head symbolism. It saddens me to report that my favorite part of the film, the only point when I wasn’t near dozing, was the spectacular church choir and organ song played loudly over the credits. What a shame.

Oscar Nominations: Meryl Streep Actress; Philip Seymour Hoffman Supporting Actor;Amy Adams Supporting Actress; Viola Davis Supporting Actress; Adapted Screenplay John Patrick Shanley;

7.0 Metacritic
7.1 Critical Consensus
8.2 IMDB

Doubt (book) @ Amazon


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4 Responses to “DOUBT”
  1. Branden says:

    I can understand your criticism of “Doubt.” In the stage version, it was only the two nuns, the priest and the mother.

    The movie suffers from having the kids in there. I believe that back in 1964, if a boy accuses a priest of molesting them, they would brutally rebuffed.

    The whole weather punctuation mark was getting a little old.

    People are still saying that the priest was gay. I don’t that he was. Being gay myself, I would know. Was it the fingernail scene that tipped you off that way? I think the priest was unclean and preyed on Donald Miller and two other boys in the school.

  2. MichaelVox says:

    Hey Branden–

    I have since heard that the stage play had no kids–it was just the main adults discussing something that may have happened. I think this film suffers for showing students. I read one review where they mentioned that a different kid looked “jealous” when the Father began hanging out with the black kid.

    The fingernail scene made no impression on me. We both know the length of your fingernails could not be less related to your orientation. I don’t think it made him a closeted cross-dresser or anything. I don’t think it meant anything.

    I didn’t say that the priest was gay, I said either he was (which the author might want us to believe) OR he was just a kind, easy-to-relate-to spiritual leader. Streep picked the first choice while I picked the second choice.

  3. KristenW says:

    Hey Michael-

    I feel that the fingernail scene IS significant. The priest showed the boys his clean nails, then basically said, “they are slightly long, but they’re clean, so it’s ok.” Symbolic meaning is all over the place in this film, and this scene is one such example. The priest’s clean fingernails represent his “clean” appearance and reputation. In order to have clean nails, one must make it a habit to clean the dirt from under them.

    Also, sexual orientation is irrelevant here completely. The abuse of children has NOTHING to do with sexual orientation and EVERYTHING to do with power and control. The priest deliberately targeted this weakest of the students and took full advantage of him.

    The debate here is whether the priest was a child molester or a relatable spiritual leader, as you said- I will repeat that whether or not he was GAY has absolutely nothing to do with this. The answer was not directly stated but inferred. The priest’s criminality was clearly depicted- okay i don’t even want to continue this argument. going to watch another movie now

  4. JayCeezy says:

    Anybody who has been in the situation Hoffman’s priest has been in, doesn’t find the movie boring. Just saw it on DVD, and having been in the position of vague suspicion and no accusation, it made my heart sink. Innuendo, manipulation, intimidation, etc. were all tools Streep’s nun used to get her way. No evidence. No way to combat it. Why would Hoffman’s priest stay? There is no way to unring this bell, and no way to make things go back to normal. Heartbreaking, and I found the most unlikely moment at the end, when Streep’s nun confessed to having “doubts.” In real life, she would be strutting around and doing an endzone victory dance.

    Great movie, great character study, fantastic acting.

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Written by Michael W. Cummins