And now, ladies and gentlemen, Oscar bait. This is "ach-ting" with a capital A, the kind of sweeping, grandiose performance fodder that sucks up awards like a Hoover. If my tone sounds condescending, or at least negative, there's a reason for that. "Doubt" has recieved surprisingly mixed reviews, but that surprise comes more from those who heard the pitch (Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman together in a film about a still-relevant issue, released in late December) and saw the trailer, and thus were convinced that this film would go off like gangbusters.
It hasn't, and more than anything, I think it's just because this film simply isn't as good as it should be. Maybe that's unfair to say, but I thoroughly believe that a film must be judged on its own merits; for example, I wouldn't review "Shoot 'Em Up" (a film I deeply loved) in the same way I would review a film like this. One expects more of a movie with such a casting pedigree, based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play, and directed by the playwright. One should expect more, and has the right to be mad if it doesn't live up to its potential.
"Doubt" is the story of the battle between two extraordinarily headstrong individuals. One is Sister Aloysius (Streep), the principal and head nun at St. Nicholas Parish/School, a predominantly Irish Catholic church in the Bronx, in the 1960s. She rules with an iron fist; the nuns dine with her in silence, rightfully afraid that a single word out of them will unleash a cuttingly sarcastic fury. Even the sweetest of those in her charge, Sister James (Amy Adams) can't help but inform her that "All the children are uniformly terrified of you." She becomes threatened by the presence of Father Flynn (Hoffman), who brings with him Aloysius' worst nightmare: notions of progress and change.
Thus, when Sister James hints that something might be happening between Fr. Flynn and the school's only African-American student, Aloysius immediately assumes the worst. She begins a crusade to force a confession without having even a slight amount of damning evidence, even going so far as to bring this to the attention of the boy's mother (Viola Davis), who in an absolutely jaw-dropping scene, changes the entire dynamic of the film by hinting that perhaps, something illicit is happening involving the priest and the boy, but not in the way Aloysius means.
Now, the dialogue is top-notch, as are the performances. Streep manages to make Aloysius human, even as she does horrible things; in the hands of any lesser actress, this character would have been reduced to an enraging caricature, but Streep lends her a certain amount of sympathy that makes it difficult to simply write her off as a monster. Hoffman is also reliable, as he plays Fr. Flynn both shadily enough and honestly enough that it is nearly impossible to figure out his true role in the whole situation. Despite this, I was reminded of a film Hoffman starred in last year, "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead." The film was superbly acted, extremely well written, and yet it didn't even come close to being one of the best films of the year. Why is this?
In the case of the former film, I have no idea, but I think I understand it here. The film is filled with so much bombast and artistic vagary that instead of being compelling, it just becomes monotonous. As great as it is to see a film that does not hold the audience by the hand, there is a point at which it gets ridiculous. Without saying too much, let me just state that when a film seems to show you everything about a character, and in its very last line of dialogue completely alters the dynamic, that's not a final reveal, it's just cheap. I'm sure many would disagree, but I stand by this opinion.
In addition, John Patrick Shanley, director and scribe/director of the original play, directs the film with more visual melodrama than most war epics. Lights are burning out, the wind is constantly howling and half the dialogue exchanges are framed in sharply tilted angles. I perfectly understand what he means to accomplish, but it becomes downright comical at times, which for a film with this much of a desire for gravity is near-fatal. That's not to say it's a bad film, not at all, but one can tell while watching it that there is a masterpiece in here somewhere that failed to be found.