Blu-ray Review: Doubt (2008)

Without a Doubt...
One of the Best Films of 2008
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“When everybody assumes that they share the same values, they share also a certain blindness. I think the utter lack of vigilance and profound credulity of people of that time [the 1960s] was what allowed the church scandals to ever happen in the first place. It was too obvious if you were paying any attention whatsoever to the amount of it taking place. It calls for a kind of cultural blindness. I was reminded in more recent times of the time I was living in a few years ago -- let's say in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq -- that again there was this kind of certitude and blindness, and it had echoes for me in this earlier time.

“I found myself living in an era of extreme advocacy... I felt surrounded by a society that seemed very certain about a lot of things. Everyone had a very entrenched opinion, but there was no real exchange, and if someone were to say ‘I don't know,’ it was as if they would be put to death in the media coliseum. There was this mask of certainty in our society that I saw hardening to the point that it was developing a crack -- and that crack was doubt.

“I thought that doubt was a hallmark of wisdom and an active and ongoing enterprise…. So I wanted to write about those issues … that celebrated the fact that you can never know anything for certain. I wanted to explore the idea that doubt has an infinite nature, that it allows for growth and change, whereas certainty [‘and dogma’] is a dead-end. Where there is certainty, the conversation is over, and I'm interested in the conversation, especially because another word for that conversation is ‘life.’ We've got to learn to live with a measure of uncertainty. That's the silence under the chatter of our time.”
-- Writer/Director John Patrick Shanley
(As Quoted in Miramax's Press & Production Notes for Doubt)

And although he began with the idea for a work that would simply be called Doubt, Shanley is careful to explain that he wasn't necessarily inspired or overly fascinated with the revelations about the global Catholic Church scandals that were featured as a regular nightly news story over the past few years. For, as he and the Oscar nominated four cast members state-- the film can resonate with anyone, anywhere, and within any given situation.

However, with the ultimate goal “that the sense of doubt belongs to the audience,” as he was determined to avoid telling “them what's right and wrong,” in lieu of making them ultimately “think and feel something, rather than tell them what to think and feel,” by centering the action for the Pulitzer Prize winning first play--in a prospective trilogy-- in a 1960s Bronx Catholic school and church with the subtext of a possible scandal, was precisely the right combination needed to ignite the audience.

Ideally Shanley knew that the decision to set his work in this particular “polarizing situation, one in which most people would brook no hesitation in condemning a person -- and then throwing those assumptions back at the audience in a different light,” would eventually cause-- what he shares on the stunningly transferred Blu-ray edition of the film-- the “final act” of Doubt to occur after audience members walked out as each person saw it in a different way.

Set in 1964, just one year after John F. Kennedy's assassination at St. Nicholas school—Shanley’s Doubt occurs just before the pivotal change for Catholicism that would eventually find nuns being able to go without the habit with the recent reformations and decisions made by 1962’s “establishment of Vatican II by Pope John XXIII” as well as encouraging “much less formality between priests and their parishioners.”

Representing the new breed of familiar, direct, and personable priests, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s affable Father Flynn tries to shake up the overly strict surroundings much to the chagrin of the equally stubborn but old-fashioned school principal Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) who is a taskmaster that preaches not on the pulpit but in the hallways and offices enforcing discipline and order to the utmost extent.

Caught in the middle between the old-fashioned values of her superior Sister Aloysius and the likable and far friendlier Father Flynn-- the young, quiet, shockingly innocent, and sweet Sister James (Amy Adams) finds her loyalties tested even more when she witnesses a few too many peculiar moments and strange behavior shared between Father Flynn and the school’s first black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II).

Not quite sure what it is she has seen but feeling in her gut that it was inappropriate, Adams’ Sister James dutifully informs Streep’s Aloysius who-- much like the allegorical cat brought in to kill the mice in another scene—tells Sister James “that we have to take care of this ourselves.”

Since-- as the film and Miramax’s Notes inform-- in the unequal gender divide and “power gap between the priests, who could wield their complete authority in church matters, and the nuns who had to eek out power in very different and subtler ways,” the Sisters of Charity at St. Nicholas had no men to whom Aloysius felt they could go with the information.

As Streep reveals in her research, commending the nuns’ “sense of great capability,” she also confides in the Production Notes that she “also got… a sense of their hierarchy in the church, how they were always second-tier to the male hierarchy of the priests and how some chafed against that. All of that was very valuable for Sister Aloysius. And all that drives the narrative.”

And indeed that it does as the film which changed from a four person theatrical production morphs into a fully-realized living and breathing work. Shot at the same corner and neighborhood where Shanley grew up as he dedicates the film to nuns as well as the real Sisters of Charity including the woman who inspired Sister James—he manages to make it a personal affair as the real sisters were brought on as consultants and the children he attended the school with now have cameos as parents in the church scenes.

Transporting the dialogue driven play in which Streep called one of her truly "great nights in the theatre” that she’d ever had where she said there were “two audible gasps [from the audience] as one voice,” as well as Hoffman who saw it countless times and Adams who fought hard for the role—Shanley decided to “utilize the conventions of [the mystery] genre—to provide a propulsive energy to the narrative.”

Of course, the lingering question that he begins with that’s starting to divide the audience from one of the earliest scenes in which Hoffman is caught in a single frame with the children is “did he or didn’t he?” [regarding Father Flynn’s "relationship" with Donald] but knowing that he would go against the one hundred plus year tradition of filmmakers who “have tended to ask a question and at the end of the movie... answer it,” this mystery evolves as Aloysius confronts Flynn directly and the three characters go around in circles without a shred of proof.

By constantly switching gears and changing your impressions, at times I felt the work recalled David Mamet's Oleanna and Arthur Miller's The Crucible except Shanley's is much more fine-tuned and speaks softly where the others shout--instead, building up tension by what isn't being said, shown, or somehow otherwise revealed.

Knowing that he was going to—similar to the play—“leave the audience at the end not with an answer, but saying rather ‘What a beautiful question’… [so] in that way, it becomes the audience’s story,” which grows far more complicated when the boy’s mother (played by an unbelievably effective Viola Davis) arrives with a rather unpredictable reaction to Aloysius and several new facts that must be taken into consideration.

The type of film that manages to somehow break through the screen and pull you inside its claustrophobic setting of Elia Kazan East of Eden like slanted cinematography by master lensman Roger Deakins to weigh possible balances of power, a clever usage of color, an emphasis on the visuals to punctuate a line or what’s not being said in a large amount of stillness and silence-- Doubt is that rare film that must be viewed more than once and is best done so along with others as each individual will make up their own mind on what has happened.

While the film’s conclusion of uncertainty and further confusion works incredibly well on the stage, even the actors admit in one of the Blu-ray’s outstanding featurettes in a discussion with Entertainment Weekly, that movie audiences (including Meryl Streep who admits to the practice herself) are far more likely to make a snap decision about something and this one doesn’t play by those expectations in the least.

Quite daring and provocative because the very nature of the story at its core is in everything we don’t see—while as Hoffman has admitted, he privately came up with his own decision as to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence (but never shared it)—I was fascinated by Amy Adams’ unique take in challenging viewers to watch the film a number of different ways, trying to shut out one entire side and say “yes, he did it” and then “no, he did not,” to understand the complexity.

However, at its core, we soon realize that the guilt or innocence is only part of the story for as soon as Viola Davis enters the film, that simplistic of a question (no matter how devastating it is) is tossed aside to one that’s so filled with gray areas, it’s almost that particular fiery exchange that will affect you even more than the “yes” or “no” and suddenly make us second guess all snap judgments… at least for a few days after you see it.

Including feature length commentary from writer/director John Patrick Shanley as well as a few mini-documentaries and featurettes—the quality of the Blu-ray for a work I now consider as one of my Top 5 Best Films of 2008 is first rate, bringing a theatrical experience right into your home and one in which the sharpness of high definition actually makes the film and characters (especially Aloysius) bring anyone who attended Catholic school right back to that surrounding. So hide your rulers and be prepared to challenge yourself with the idea of embracing Doubt (both the film and the state of mind) instead of arithmetic and school uniforms.