Friday, September 5, 2014

Bad Habits

Year: 2008
Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Forgive me readers, for I have sinned.

I have promised Sergio that I would watch Doubt with him since possibly the first microsecond of our relationship, but have managed to delay it a year and a half down the line. Now, any frequent reader of this blog knows that dramas, especially religious period dramas are absolutely not my forte, although I'm a big Meryl Streep fan (if you're not, thank you for visiting this blog from your home dimension, because you don't exist in mine).

But some higher power decided that I should labor on Labor Day, so Sergio and I decided to make the most of the preceding day (which was, appropriately, Sunday) by sitting down and achieving this hard-won dream. And you know what? I didn't hate it.

I mean, it's hard to hate someone so fashion-forward.

Doubt tells the story of Catholic school principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep). Her stern, old-fashioned ways have no place in the modern cultural climate of 1964 (what's more modern than Meet the Beatles! and My Fair Lady?), or so thinks Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a more progressive priest who performs such sacrilegious acts as (gasp!) listening to "Frosty the Snowman" and (my stars!) forgive errant altar boys.

One such altar boy, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster) becomes the source of a whirling controversy by nature of 1) being the first black student accepted into the school and 2) Sister James' (Amy Adams) early suspicion that his relationship with Father Flynn might have dipped into impropriety. Sister James is caught in the crossfire as Sister Aloysius attempts to bring down Father Flynn with all her might for what she perceives to be a case of molestation.

And that's about it. Doubt is based on the play of the same name by John Patrick Shanley (also the film's director) and retains much of the same presentational limitations of the form, especially the musty, fussy, staging typically exhibited by off-Broadway plays full of ambiguity and religious metaphor.

Nope, nothing Jesusy here, move it along.

Doubt is a film about the power of words, and is thus filled to the brim with conversations: Conversations between Aloysius and her nemesis, Father Flynn, conversations between Aloysius and her unwitting mentee Sister James, and conversations between Aloysius and Donald's mother (Viola Davis), sometimes lasting ten minutes or more. To mix it up a bit, there are brief interludes for Father Flynn's lengthy sermons and Sister James' classroom lectures.

For a film this strapped for alternative content, it is absolutely crucial to feature a host of terrific performances, which it thankfully receives through the deity-channeling vessels known as Steep, Davis, and Hoffman, in that order. Adams is terrific, but too green to make an impression when pitched against these three giants. In the hands of people like, say, Keanu Reeves or Jessica Alba, the film would undoubtedly be a dismal failure.

Obviously thanks to its overwrought intellectual content, it teeters on that knife's edge for general audiences, especially those with no particular interest in religion. But for those who appreciate the art and craft of cinema, Doubt is a near textbook example of filmmaking done right, even if the story is a bit slack at times. 

The use of cinematography (especially judicious use of canted shots), color design (color is eked out only in very strict measures), and delicious lighting schemes allow the sufficiently invested viewer to interpret subtextual meaning and symbolism (even beyond the obviously religious) in a more immediate and rewarding way than many films of its ilk.

 You know what they say... Those who can't do, cant.

Doubt is full of resonant themes to be parsed out by any viewer with a keen eye and a willingness to meet the material halfway. Those who don't wish to can't be blamed, especially because the plot is so achingly measured and sedate. But for those willing to go the distance, Doubt provides some terrific performers at the top of their game and an interesting cinematic text to study.

TL;DR: Doubt faces the constant threat of receding into dullness, but survives on the strength of terrific performers and a strong cinematic style.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 720

No comments:

Post a Comment