December 30, 2008

Taking It Home: Doubt

Streep and Hoffman compare notes from the drafts of their Oscar acceptance speeches...

If John Patrick Shanley considered several one-word titles for his play before eventually settling on Doubt, chances are one of the possibilities was "Candor"; almost never in my life have I heard people talk so openly to each other about such sensitive issues. The discussions between the characters in Doubt are so brutally honest, in fact, that I found myself scoffing at the screen in my head, thinking "Come on, people don't have conversations like this."

But to get caught up in questions about the reality of the language used is to miss the point of the story. Whether spoken with these words or not, the arguments between Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) and Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) certainly happen in real life. They might communicate non-verbally or through third parties, but judging by the number of shameful accusations made against Catholic priests in the last two generations, there is no "doubt" that men of the cloth have found themselves under obvious suspicion from those in their innermost circles.

Shanley's play, which was adapted by him for the film directed by him, is a rich study of the pain and suffering that comes not from knowing that a crime has been committed, but from not knowing for certain that a crime has been committed. The doubt itself is in some ways worse than the actual sin - not necessarily in God's eyes, but in the experience of the individual.

Take the wife of a cheating husband, for example, never sure how to interpret his sneaky behavior. Or the teacher of a dishonest student who turns in a plagiarized assignment. Or, more significantly, the
police officer who draws his weapon on a shadowy figure or the president who sends his country to a war based on questionable intelligence.

For each person, the gnawing uncertainty about their gut feelings is torturous. Actually confirming that the husband is unfaithful, or that the student has lifted from a classmate, or that the risk of danger was unfounded, doesn't make the problem go away. But it does make coping easier, if only because the individual can acknowledge the truth and move on, for better or worse. Until this truth is known, however, the person will endlessly suffer through cycles of certainty and skepticism. I would even argue that regret, in one of its many forms, is simply doubt by another name. When I think back on my life, half of the decisions that haunt me are the ones for which I'll never truly know the "other" outcome.

I haven't experienced the horrors of sexual abuse, but I can only imagine that those who have, especially by a trusted individual like a priest or teacher or relative, may be forever filled with doubt and suspicion and distrust of people in such positions. It must be extremely difficult to regain faith in former beliefs, evidenced by Sister Aloysius in Doubt or, as another recent example, Juliette Fontaine's brother-in-law in I've Loved You So Long.

How do you quiet the questions in your head and heart? I don't know, and I also don't know if you should attempt to relieve yourself of all uncertainties - after all, you can't have faith without also having doubt. But somewhere you have to draw the line and make a decision, and I've found it's nearly impossible to do that with any level of comfort.

What did you take home?


  1. I haven't had the chance to take anything home from this film just yet, but I do want to say that I heart reading what you take home. Its totally refreshing.

  2. I love how the title can be applied many different ways - doubt about Father Flynn's guilt, about faith, about Sister Aloysious' methods, or a combination of all three. It's all very thought provoking.

  3. Excellent post. I thought about this film for days after I saw it. I was struck by how much was unsaid, fueling the doubt. The final scene with Sister Aloysious was powerful and shocking. Though the performances were outstanding, the screenplay was the real star for me.

  4. Excellent piece, Daniel. I'm just finally sitting down to write my review of this now, after seeing it back on Friday with Gran Torino. It has gained in my estimation since, which is always a good sign. Again, great piece.

  5. Fine review, Daniel.

    I'm writing my own piece on it right now, hopefully it will go up later today. I had a hard time finding an angle to hang the writeup on. I don't know if it's because it was such a rich experience, or whether it was as advertised, an acting duel between two greats. (It might be because of the biz I'm in)

  6. Thanks everyone for chiming in. I like writing these instead of traditional reviews from time to time. In fact I may do more of it, though it usually depends on the movie. Nick, "refreshing" is probably the biggest compliment you could give my writing - thanks.

    I agree, Matthew, and that gets to what Rick says. There's a lot at play here and everyone is doubting someone else to some degree. Even the kid's parent. Viola Davis, is that her name?

    Interesting, Linda. While I obviously found it all very thought-provoking, I think the performances grabbed me more than the screenplay, or rather I should say that I'm not sure what the point was in making this into a movie. Other than bringing it to a wider audience, it didn't appear that the movie added anything that the play couldn't have (although I never saw the play). Either way, Shanley did pretty well directing this. I also enjoyed the cinematography by Roger Deakins.

    Thanks, Alexander. I look forward to your sure-to-be enriching review. And I'm dying to see Gran Torino next week.

    Rick, I'm also very interested to read your take from the other side of the pew, as it were.

  7. I saw this with my family on Monday and I really enjoyed it. We talked a bit after and it seemed that we were all a bit doubtful as to Sister Aloysius' certainty and we questioned the severity of her actions based on this certainty. [SPOILER] It seemed like a test for Aloysius to absolutely ruin Father Flynn. Whether he did it or not, she knew that if she could destroy Flynn without certainty, and she did. I think that scene where she admits that she didn't talk to the nun on the phone and that she had made it up just showed where she was willing to go to cripple Father Flynn. And not to say he wasn't guilty, he very well could have been, but the method she used was completely wrong.[/SPOILER]

  8. I took home the experience of a riveting, superlatively-acted and superbing orchestrated stage-to-screen adaptation that wasn't terribly enterprising in a cinematic sense, but was nonetheless uncompromised, a factor that didn't violate the essence of the material. Unlike the stage version, where one was convinced of the priest's innocence, one got the opposite feelings at the conclusion of the film. I do agree that the word "doubt" takes on a plethora of meanings as applied to the film's themes/narrative components, and like everyone else I was completely dazzled by the performance. You have composed a most accomplished piece here, as did before you Matt Lucas, and I also look forward to Alexander's piece and Rick's. I defened the stage-to-screen decision to remain loyal to the material in my own review, a nd the film willl make my Top 10 list amidst fierce competition.

  9. My piece on "Doubt" is going up tomorrow AM.

    Happy New Year, everybody!

  10. Thanks for the thoughts, David! I was also caught off guard by her admission about the phone call. It's troubling to think of the lengths that people will go to take down others, essentially just out of spite. It was an odd ending, to be sure.

    I need to catch up on your review, Sam, as I believe you wrote it weeks before it was even released here, as is always the case. Interesting insight about the switched conclusions from the stage to screen, especially since I haven't seen the play. This one will likely be right on the outside edge of my Top 10 this year, probably Top 20.

    I'm on my way to read yours shortly, Rick...


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