"Doubt" seethes with explosive performances

Doubt (2008) 
104 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: A -

John Patrick Shanley takes his Tony and Pulitzer-winning play to the big screen with the collectively explosive performances of his top-drawer cast mostly breaking "Doubt" of its rigid and theatrical mold. 

It's 1964, post-John F. Kennedy assassination, at the Bronx's private Catholic school St. Nicholas. Meryl Streep traipses through the halls like a fearsome, puritanical Darth Vader as mother superior and principal Sister Aloysius Beauvier: she is obviously the villain of this piece. Compassionate resident priest Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is perceived as the good guy and soon innocent victim when he's accused of having inappropriate, possibly sexual relations with 12-year-old Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), a black altar boy. Young, soft-spoken history teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) is the one that unintentionally stirs the pot, suspicious that Flynn has made advances on Donald after having her student return to class from having a meeting with Flynn in the rectory, only to be “acting funny” and smelling of alcohol. Taking this piece of news to headmistress Beauvier, the superior makes her own suspicions without any concrete evidence and maintains that her own certainty is stronger than any proof. Her enmity toward Flynn extends even to him using a ball-point pen and taking too many lumps of sugar in his tea! Salem witch trials, anyone? 

Written and directed for the screen by Shanley, "Doubt" raises debate-worthy social questions—moral ambiguity, old vs. new, tough love vs. companionship—and never answers the question at hand but wisely leaves us in doubt. Shanley (making his second feature as director after "Joe Versus the Volcano") is heavy-handed in a few of his choices, some of them awfully symbolic: canted, low-angle camera framing, a torrential storm furiously stirring leaves and breaking tree branches, and windows being left open to allow rain to pour in. Still, through implication and contextual detail, the drama is convincing in the hands of its performers. In one amusing segment, there is a distinct contrast between the priests and sisters at supper time—respectively, telling crude jokes while devouring steaks, and sitting in complete silence. 

Without a doubt, Streep and Hoffman command the screen. Streep is definitely acting here but never tips into caricature. Seriously having fun, from rolling her eyes to smacking students on the back of the head and wearing the penguin-colored habit, Meryl the Great sinks her teeth with zeal into the character of Aloysius, who could've been a plot device for the play's moral agenda but is in fact an evil, complex character. Also, listen to the sly way she reacts to her office bulb burning out (symbolism again!). Hoffman, one of the best actors working today, essays Father Flynn's compassion and charisma, and yet gives us a questionable side. Even Amy Adams gives Sister James a shade of depth, being naïve and sweet-natured but not entirely a pushover either, as she's torn between her wanting to believe the good in Flynn and her allegiance to her mother superior. Viola Davis makes the most of her one “wow” scene—a pin-drop confrontation with Streep—as Donald's weary, straight-talking mother with a small powerhouse of a performance. 

Technical credits are way up there as well, with Howard Shore's Phillip Glass-style music score suiting the material and the visual tones monochromatically stern and yet beautiful. If you seek marvelous acting chops and food for thought, "Doubt" will fill your Oscar-bait gullet, no doubt.