Doubt arrives during a fortuitous collective crisis in confidence. Along with the jobs, the blood and the billions, so too has a great deal of doubt’s counterpoint, trust—that intangible psychological stuff—oozed up into the ether, poof, gone.

Dubya’s “gut” proved to contain bile, not a magical ability to make sound decisions. Investments and mortgages that sounded too good to be true, were. Photos of missile silos were, more likely, photos of baklava factories. Trust is a
little-discussed, but fascinatingly necessary, requirement for democracy to function—and with it goes everything.

John Patrick Shanley, Doubt’s writer-director (who first brought it to the stage where it won countless awards, including the 2005 Pulitzer and Tony) crisscrosses over his film’s titular mental state with careful consideration and a writerly aplomb that makes use of metaphor and motif (notice, for instance, the window that keeps cracking open, like a persistent question, and lets the chaotic, leaf-whirling storm inside). Shanley mines his characters’ doubts, both factual and spiritual—as well as the audience’s own—and presents a challenging story that centers on a molestation allegation at a Catholic school in the Bronx during another period of incredulity: 1964, the year following JFK’s assassination.

The accuser is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), a hard-nosed, disciplinarian abbess (all non-Whoopi Goldberg-movie nuns are hard-nosed disciplinarians, aren’t they?), who comes, through intuition and an ingenue nun’s (Amy Adams) report, to suspect a charismatic, forward-thinking priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of molesting the parish school’s only black student. What follows from there is a clever dissection of gender, race and personality type that works, for the audience, like a puzzle upon which one’s assumptions are constantly being recalibrated, discarded and then retrieved all over again.

The performances by Streep, Hoffman and Adams, three of Hollywood’s finest, are mostly exemplary, if somewhat uneven—there is a way in which the actors seem to be operating on differing levels of theatricality. Streep, though magnificent to behold, edges on the overwrought. Her eyes are, at times, so furtively searching that one wonders if she’s watching a tennis match being played just off set. Adams, too, is a bit over-the-top, blending into the comic, too-innocent character she knocked out of the park in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. Conversely, the prolific Hoffman is more pulled-in than usual, giving one of his more subtle and honest performances. A small role by Viola Davis, as the purported victim’s mother, announces a talented new actress.

Anyone who enjoys this sort of material explored in a very literary way—think of last year’s underrated Notes On A Scandal or Atonement—should harbor no reservations about seeing Doubt. Trust me.

Written and directed by John Patrick Shanley
With Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis

UA DeVargas
104 min., PG-13