How do you deal with a doubt threatening to ruin your life and all the pillars that uphold it? Do you run from it? Or do you become consumed by it? These are a few of the questions the underappreciated 2008 drama “Doubt” asks its characters and viewers.
Set in the Bronx during the mid 60s, “Doubt” tells the tale of two nuns who become dubious of their Catholic priest Father Flynn and his unusually close relationship with Donald Miller, the only Black boy in a primarily Italian/Jewish parish school. Fueled only by bits and pieces of circumstantial evidence and substantial doubt, the film examines Sisters Aloysius and James’s defiance of the blind faith and unyielding hierarchy exercised by the church.
Crowned with both a Pulitzer and a Tony award, the play “Doubt: The Parable” translates seamlessly into the medium of film to bring about this scintillating piece of art. And who better to bring John Patrick Shanley’s characters to life than the likes of Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman? In this star-studded cast, Viola Davis steals the show through her brief ten-minute appearance as the disturbingly pragmatic mother of Donald, receiving a well-deserved Academy Award nomination. The script takes full advantage of its actors, running the gamut and requesting everything from the subtlest of emotions to the ugliest of passions. The demanding task is one that this cast accomplishes with ease.
By virtue of being a script derived from a play, “Doubt” is dialogue-dense, to say the least. Witty remarks fly around everywhere, but Shanley’s writing truly shines when the characters’ language inhabits ambiguity under the new lens of cynicism. Their language becomes more ominous once the movie shrouds your vision with a veil of distrust. Doubt leaves no statement innocent; even a simple appeal to love can be interpreted as the most stomach-churning of lines.
That being said, there’s so much more to “Doubt” than the chit-chat. Roger Deakins, one of the greatest cinematographers working today, collaborates with Shanley to keep the film’s themes alive visually. Towering high angle shots look down upon its characters in a fashion redolent of a certain higher being. And the nauseating Dutch angle (a camera shot where the screen is tilted diagonally) particularly saturates the film’s visual language. Add to that the chilling, high-pitched strings composed by Howard Shore and the queasy shades of green as background wall paint of school and church scenes, and you have a culmination of visual and auditory elements converging to subconsciously supplant an extra layer of discomfort to the viewing experience. The film forces you to breathe in the foul scent of doubt.
In the story, that scent slowly seeps into the sisters’ psyche as firmly as the principles of Catholicism had once cemented themselves in their hearts. Devastation befalls both believers, who must undertake a herculean task in the face of an almighty male superior ordained by the words of God Himself.
Sure enough, even God disapproves of the nuns. Violent gales and pouring rain emerge after the two sisters acknowledge their suspicions. Lightning strikes on cue to an equally thunderous accusation from Sister Aloysius in her confrontation with Father Flynn, as if to say that God condemns the heresy spouting from her mouth. The scarce proof of the priest’s guilt looks extra puny against the titanic machine that systematically breeds blind subordination from its followers. But the possibility of Father Flynn’s innocence floats in the air, as Sister Aloysius, in particular, is marked out by other characters to be overly cynical.
The audience is left in the dark about Father Flynn’s wrongdoing as much as the characters are. Cloaked in ambiguity, “Doubt” challenges the viewer to avoid passively absorbing its narrative and to actively interrogate the truth. To think for ourselves. To doubt.