Movie review: “Doubt”

During a brief interlude away from this blog, I watched, “Doubt,” which features Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, three times, and while I have some guesses as to whether the main character, Priest Flynn (Hoffman), engaged in inappropriate behavior with one of the Catholic school’s students, the movie leaves the question open, thus, “doubt” is the ultimate game, both inside the plot of the movie and outward, toward the audience.

doubt, phillip seymour hoffman, amy adams, film, religion

"Doubt" poster

Briefly about the movie: the film takes place around the Christmas holiday in 1964 in the Bronx, New York. Flynn is an amicable priest, who, by his own admission, sometimes struggles with his own uncertainties of faith and admonishes his congregation, in the form of a sermon, to not feel alone and isolated. Everyone feels lost at one time or another, and we should not feel alone because we aren’t. This is the crux of the first sermon delivered in the movie, and the message is brought at the end by a parable. In total, Flynn delivers three messages during the course of the movie, each bookended by a parable. Actually, the 2004 play for which the movie is named is subtitled, “A Parable.”

The jovial, joking and carousing spirit of the priests when they sit down for dinner is contrasted with that of the more tempered nuns, who largely eat in silence. That is, until Streep’s character, Sister Aloysius, breaks the quietude and tells her fellow nuns that they should be on the lookout for any peculiar activity from Flynn. Aloysius said that after his sermon, she suspected something was amiss in the church and school.

The movie attempts to deal with the issue of race in a unique way, in that the school’s first black student, Donald Miller, is the student with which Flynn is accused of having an inappropriate relationship. While Aloysius and James seem sensitive to neither singling Miller out or pushing him to the back in the upcoming Christmas production, Flynn is sensitive too, but in a different way, saying that the boy should be treated exactly like the other students and shouldn’t receive special treatment just because he’s black.

We later find out that Miller suffers beatings from his father. I will leave readers to watch the movie to find out precisely why. One day, Flynn, in a scene that looks harmless enough — and one would almost miss it if you got up to get a drink — calls Miller into the rectory. Sister James (Adams) is the mousy teacher of a class who learns how to handle the students from the hardened and unwavering Sister Aloysius.

The movie quickly cuts to dancing practice right after Miller leaves to visit Flynn. James later tells Aloysius that Miller acted strangely upon returning to class and that he had alcohol on his breath. After some prying, Aloysius finally gets Flynn to say that the boy was caught drinking wine and was subsequently kicked from the altar boys. This is where it gets interesting because while James believes Flynn’s story, Aloysius does not and vows to bring Flynn down. Flynn’s next sermon, appropriately enough, is about gossip, and Hoffman, moving flawlessly between a Bronx accent and that of an Irish priest named O’Rourke, his character, Flynn, tells a parable about a conversation between the woman and an Irish priest. The pastor tells the woman to take a pillow, go to her roof and cut it open with a knife. When she does this, she goes back to the pastor, and he asks if she was able to collect all the feathers that had blown in the wind after cutting the pillow open. She said that she wasn’t able to and that they were scattered all about in the wind. And that, Flynn told the congregation forcefully, is gossip.

Later in the film, Aloysius confronts Donald Miller’s mother about the alleged incident in one of the better acted scenes I’ve seen in quite awhile. Donald’s mother is played by Viola Davis, who, in her only scene in the movie, clearly brought her acting A-game. The scene was so impassioned, and in ways, shocking, that is easily stands as the pivotal scene in the film.

So as not to give anything away, I’ll leave at it that regarding plot details. Nothing much happens in the film in any real sense. Dialog, stellar acting, unusual lighting and camera angles and symbolism largely carry the movie. It is, almost chokingly, set within the confines of this school and church. From attempting to dissect the various clues about whether Flynn actually did the deed (I have even carefully examined Hoffman’s facial expressions during the confrontation scene between Aloysius, James and Flynn), one can really only come to a reasoned guess on what really happened.

Almost as important, or perhaps more important, is the films’s position squarely in the Civil Rights era of 20th-century history. Flynn, for whatever other flaws he has, seems to be a caring man and took Donald under his wing (Sister James called him Donald’s “protector”). When another white student (As it happens, the one whom I suspect may have actually been a victim if Flynn did anything wrong at all) throws Donald’s backpack on the floor in the hallway, Flynn helps Donald to his feet, hugs him and then helps him collect his things.

Whatever Flynn may or may not have done, he was attempting to challenge Aloysius, who comes off in the movie as some Middle Age nun who wants to keep everything the same and who is hostile to change and anything modern or secular (Except when she confiscates a boy’s transistor radio, and later in the film, is seen listening to news reports). For instance, when Flynn suggests church leaders try some new things, like taking the children on a camping trip or for ice cream, Aloysius cuttingly retorts: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

In all, Flynn’s humanity and compassion for his “flock” shine through, and even if he is gay or sympathetic to gays, one can hardly call him a monster, and it’s this point that leads me to believe that, in fact, he didn’t do anything wrong. He delivers my favorite and possibly the most telling, quote of the movie during a one-on-one scene with Sister James outside the school. Speaking of Aloysius, he says,

There are people who go after your humanity, sister. They tell you that the light in your heart is a weakness. Don’t believe it. It’s an old tactic of cruel people to kill kindness in the name of virtue. There’s nothing wrong with love.

The conversation, as it happens, convinced Sister James that Flynn was innocent.

About the Author

Jeremy Styron
Jeremy Styron
I am a newspaper editor, op-ed columnist and reporter working in the greater Knoxville area. This is a personal blog. Views expressed here are mine and mine alone.

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