Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A No Doubter

by Jacob Shoaf

The odds have been stacked in favor of John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt from the beginning. In front of the camera, there’s Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams, while behind the scenes, Shanley snagged Roger Deakins as cinematographer, Howard Shore as composer, and Dylan Tichenor as editor. From all appearances, this is something of a cinematic dream team. And with few caveats, this dream team delivers a powerful product about faith and certainty.

Doubt is set in the Bronx in 1964 and tells the story of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), a principal at a private Catholic school who clashes with Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a priest whom she accuses of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. This puts young Sister James (Amy Adams) in the crossfire as she tries to work the situation out and take sides as best as possible.

What the film really boils down to is the threat that Father Flynn poses to Sister Aloysius’ power at the school. Doubt does a great job establishing the dichotomy between Aloysius and Flynn. From the very introduction of the characters, it’s obvious that they’re diametrically opposed. They’re first seen at mass. Flynn is addressing the congregation in a brightly colored robe. He’s shown facing the camera as though we are a part of the crowd listening to him. The film then cuts to the back of Sister Aloysius’ habit. The black figure rises and walks down the aisle on the far left side of the sanctuary passing rambunctious children. Said children stop misbehaving when they become aware of the figure’s presence, either by a combination of their awareness and fear or from a smack to the back of the head by the figure. The differences are further shown at meals led by the two. The nuns eat in almost total silence. Aloysius speaks and the appropriate sister responds. This is immediately juxtaposed with a dinner held by Flynn with two other priests. They laugh loudly and converse openly, almost to the point of being considered boisterous.

Doubt seems to place its sympathy with Flynn. In the schoolyard, he walks among the students, joking around and laying down the law in a friendly manner. Aloysius watches from a window above. He is with the students while she watches in a detached manner. The camera assumes the POV of Aloysius to look down upon Flynn. This angle is later revisited when Flynn enters the church. The scene begins by the camera looking down on Flynn. He looks up and spots a stainglass window which features an open eye. We then return to the previous angle to watch Flynn watch the eye. Through the similarity of the angles, this ever-watching eye becomes associated with the Sister. And even if the character Flynn doesn’t get it (but he probably does), the eye is a reminder that Aloysius is intently watching Flynn.

Flynn vs. Aloysius isn’t just about power. It’s also about progression, the old against the new. Donald Miller (Joseph Foster), the young boy that Aloysius accuses Flynn of treating inappropriately, is the first student brought into the school by integration. Aloysius states that she was opposed to this (not due to racism per se, but just that it would upset the previously established order). She is also hesitant to include secular songs in the Christmas pageant (Flynn’s suggestion). She even prohibits the use of ball point pens in the school (guess who uses one…). So Aloysius’ anger at finding open windows in various rooms is something of interest. As the wind blows in, it seems to be opposing her will/order as well. And in the Catholic world of this film, what deity controls the wind? After lumping the wind in with these other things she opposes, it would seem that Aloysius is going against not only progression, but also God. That’s quite an odd position for a nun to take. This is more openly discussed towards the end of the film when Aloysius admits to Sister James that she lied about something (vaguely worded = spoiler free), but she writes it off by telling her(self) that sometimes you have to step away from God in order do His will.

But as good as the rest of the film is, a minor problem lies at the feet of Shanley. The man has won an Emmy, a Tony and a Pulitzer (both for writing Doubt: A Parable, the source for the film at hand), and even an Oscar (best screenplay in 1988 for Moonstruck). He’s written over twenty plays, but his only previous cinematic directorial effort was Joe Versus the Volcano. This lack of experience is palpable every time he turns the damned camera sideways to make a canted angle (aka-Dutch angle). It seems REALLY forced. He might as well come out from behind the camera and gleefully state, “Look! I’m building tension! Aren’t things tense now?” It comes across as if he doesn’t trust the material itself to build up the necessary tension, so he feels obligated to supplement it. These angles immediately draw attention to themselves and their purpose is so transparent that it’s insulting.

With the exception of a few overly theatrical moments, all of the leads were typically excellent, as was the minor role of Mrs. Miller (Donald’s mother) played by Viola Davis. Though her screentime is scant, just about every review lauds her above the leads. It’s feasible that she might receive a best supporting actress Oscar nomination (she’s already garnered a Golden Globe nom). Another actor to watch is Joseph Foster who plays Donald Miller. This is only his second film role, but his first was in Michael Cuesta’s Twelve and Holding. Maybe his agent has really good taste, but I’ll be interested to see if his next roles are in projects which are as good as the first two.

The subjects broached in Doubt are by no means trailblazing, but that doesn’t stop the film from being an entertaining, engrossing, and powerful viewing experience. Come February, Shanley might have to reorganize his Pulitzer, Emmys, and Tonys to make sure there’s enough room on the mantel for another Oscar or two.


Chuck W said...

OK, I'll admit. I'm one of this film's many detractors.

But I'm still giving you mad props for writing a cogently argued defense of this film that does a great deal toward a coherent explication of some things I missed during my viewing. I especially liked your analysis of the opening sermon scene.

Of course, I had the same problem you did with this movie: Shanley's direction. It's forced, heavy-handed, and too eager to literalize all of the subtle nuances of the original stage play. He directs the film like a college English teacher trying to explain literary terminology to his freshmen students. At times, I half-expected a Godardian intertitle to flash things like "METAPHOR" or "FORESHADOWING" or "THE WIND SYMBOLIZES GOD'S JUDGMENT."

But still--the acting is all-around excellent. And Philip Seymour Hoffman has some hot-ass fingernails.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Chuck.

I appear to be in the minority that actually likes this film. Maybe this review will sway some of you naysayers to my side.

If Shanley had put a massive "THE WIND SYMBOLIZES GOD'S JUDGEMENT," I'd be among your ranks. As for Hoffman's nails: *catcall whistle*.

James Hansen said...

Maybe its just me, but I basically thought there were Godardian intertitles of that sort.

My big issue with this film is that there didn't seem to be much urgency in any of its major aspects: filmmaking, performances, or storytelling. The story itself has a sense of urgency built into it (although its happy to wait until June) but the film didn't build it into the narrative. I kept waiting for things to get rolling (sort of like in NBA Jam..."it's heating up!"), but it never did. It just sort of strolled along and each scene had a "winner" and the other performer sort of rolled-over for that person to have their scene/Oscar moment. I think the battle you mention is written in the play, but I didn't think it was put to screen very well at all. Even if the performances are "good" on their own, I just didn't think it added up to much of anything.

Anyways, there are clearly more people who like the film more than your co-writers here (see Rotten Tomatoes where this is 77% fresh), but we're also the site where no one likes Slumdog. Go figure...

Anonymous said...

James, while I do not agree with you, I do appreciate a good NBA Jam reference. I think "Doubt" is ON FIRE!!!

Anonymous said...

I finally got around to watching this movie, and I must say I liked it much more than I thought I would.

I think you reviewed this very well Jacob. Now if only you could see this comment. lol

Anonymous said...

Haha. Thanks, Tony! James pointed out that you had posted.

I by no means expect Doubt to be on your Top 10 list, but I'm curious to see what will make the cut.