See This: Doubt (2008, John Patrick Shanley)
The film version of John Patrick Shanley's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning play has received mixed reviews, but don't let that stop you from seeing this: it's a powerhouse. Merryl Streep adds another pitch-perfect, nuanced performance to her canon and is sure to get an Oscar nomination for her role as Sister Aloysius, the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx, circa 1964.
Streep plays the sister as a steely, no-nonsense Bride of Christ who believes fear and discipline go hand in hand. When a charismatic new priest, Father Flynn (a brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman), seeks to modernize the school and become more friendly and open with its parishioners, Sister A. balks. She doesn't like his sermon topics or his easy-going manner with the students and their parents. When Sister James (Amy Adams, like Streep, proving that she can play just about any part) becomes suspicious of Father Flynn's attention to the school's first black student, Donald Miller, she hesitantly tells Sister Aloysius, who begins a personal crusade to find the truth and have him removed from the school. She has no proof, just a gut instinct that something is amiss. But is it?
Without giving anything away, there are so many unanswered questions in the film that it's almost impossible to figure out who is telling the truth. Father Flynn may or may not have had a similar situation at his previous parish, he may or may not have made sexual advances on Donald Miller. When Sister Aloysius has a conference with Donald's mother (a unnerving and heartbreaking performance from Viola Davis, who better get a shitload of nominations), it is revealed (or is it?) that Donald is gay. His father beats hims regularly and Mrs. Miller is glad a man is showing her son any kind of love and affection. "It's only till June," she says, tears streaming down her face. "He graduates and then he can get into a better school and maybe college." This jaw-dropping admission and Sister Aloysius' horrified reaction are the centerpiece of the film.
Streep and Hoffman chew scenery in their confrontations, while Adams tries to play peacemaker, guilt-ridden that her suspicions have led to Sister Aloysius' witch hunt. It's a very talky film, as many stage plays can be (Frost/Nixon included), but Shanley knows when to shut up and let the images do the talking. The old school and church are suitably dark. Windows are mysteriously left open in rooms, where wind and rain pour inside. The light bulb in Sister Aolysius' office blows out every time someone raises their voice. The foreboding almost gets too heavy-handed but the actors keep the film balanced right up until Sister Aloysius' unexpected and tearful admission of her own sins.
And, yet, Doubt leaves the audience to make up its own mind on who is right and wrong in this story. It might be a bit maddening to those who like their films tied up all nice and neat, but don't go in to this one expecting easy answers.