Doubt is a strange little film, seemingly at virtual odds with itself, part psychological thriller, part sociopolitical message movie, part black comedy and part, appropriately enough, stage play. Perhaps it is director John Patrick Shanley, adapting his own successful stage play, and his lack of directorial experience (his one previous effort was the oft-criticized but inexplicably fun "other" Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan collaboration, Joe vs. the Volcano) or perhaps it is the almost otherworldly subject matter involved - the almost taboo voyeuristic look into the mostly unseen inner reverent lives of priests and nuns. Whatever the case, this odd juxtaposition of moods is there on screen, throughout the film, and, for the most part, it seems to work .
A few quirks, spooks and camera tilts aside, Doubt, is essentially a filmed play and therefore does not hinge solely on the direction of Shanley, but instead on the screenplay and even more so, on those players bringing that screenplay, and therefore that film to life. It is in these performances where Doubt truly shines. Philip Seymour Hoffman's persecuted priest, Amy Adams' typically naive and good-hearted nun, Viola Davis' stunning, and sadly much too short performance as a troubled yet realistic mother and especially the one the only, Ms. Meryl Streep as a nun so proverbially scary (slapping sleeping children on the back of the head during mass, rapping hands with rulers, seething with a God-fearing distrust toward everything from candy to ball point pens, even ranting against the use of the "demonically" rooted Frosty the Snowman during an upcoming Christmas pageant) that she almost single-handedly turns this thesis on belief and doubt and how both can be dangerous powers to wield, into a full blown gothic horror story. Streep is so wickedly pious and fearfully chastising in her demeanor it's almost a wonder thunder claps and ominous gusts of wind do not mark her every entrance and exit - oh wait, they do.
Ostensibly, Doubt is the story of a sanctimoniously overzealous nun played by the aforementioned hideous kinky Meryl Streep, and her wrath of brimstone determination to banish the parish priest when she believes he has sexually assaulted an alter boy, as well as her incontrovertible belief that he is guilty of all crimes whether she can prove it or not. Deeper down though, and this is where one might start believing Shanley meant for his film to seem at odds with itself, the film delves into the much broader scope of trust in one's belief when all around you seem to be decaying. It is the story of, appropriately so, doubt, and the extrapolation of fundamental ideas in light of said doubt, and it is in this underlying theme that Streep is so bewilderingly incredible, both in a terrifying and darkly comedic manner (the film does hold quite a bit of humour as well) as to hold the film, with all its flaws in tow, together for the duration. There is surely no doubt (sorry 'bout that) that Meryl Streep commands every inch of the screen for every moment she is on it and that is just what this film needs. No doubt indeed. [01/03/09]