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It's not terribly often that you come across a movie that manages to be tense and suspenseful using dialogue instead of chase scenes, that's philosophical without being ponderous, that's heartbreaking while avoiding schmaltz. “Doubt” is that movie, and it's damn good.
It's the story of a Catholic parish in Boston, set the year after John Kennedy's assassination. The parish pastor (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a young, charismatic priest with a penchant for poetic sermons. He's very popular with the parishioners, particularly the students at the school, and yearns to give the church a more modern, loving face.
Resistance comes in the form of Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the school's principal and hatchet-faced, knuckle-rapping eighth-grade-nightmare fuel that is the staple of a traditional Catholic upbringing. She disapproves of the young father. Even worse, she suspects him.
The school has accepted its first black student, and Father Flynn has taken a special interest in the boy. The boy, in turn, has come to idolize him, has become an altar boy, and expresses a desire to enter the priesthood. The two are thick as thieves, and most assume Flynn's interest is simply in protecting the boy and preparing him for the priesthood.
But Sister Beauvier believes Father Flynn's attentions are inappropriate, that he has seduced one of his students. She has no proof, only her certainty and her dislike of Flynn, and that is enough for her. She will devote herself to removing him from the parish.
The overarching theme of the movie is clear enough from the title and the opening sermon, and writer/director John Patrick Shanley (here adapting his own Pulitzer Prize-winning stage drama) plays his variations on it like a master conductor. The tension builds slowly and inexorably in a manner reminiscent of classic Hitchcock films like “Rope,” and by the climax all wounds are laid ... not bare, exactly, but we can at least hear the rip of the bandages coming off.
Most skillful of all is how Shanley plays with our belief, making Sister Beauvier's accusations seem now ridiculous, now possible, now misguided, now likely, and so on. It's not a whodunit; that's not the point. We are meant to have, yes, doubts, and that's how the story leaves us: pretty sure of what happened, but swimming in doubt.
Streep and Hoffman are on their game and deliver some gut-punching performances. Amy Adams as the naive young Sister James has solidified her film career with this role, and relative unknown Viola Davis manages to upstage Streep. Her turn as the boy's mother is the best acting of the film, and if you're the parent of a young child, it will likely haunt you long after you've left the theater.
The holiday season is usually jam-packed with quality dramas, but “Doubt” is easily one of the best of 2008 and will end up taking home more than a few awards. It's not a happy holiday movie, but it's one you have to see.