DOUBT

1. Dana Stevens points out that critics are a lot more obsessed with a movie’s source material — particularly when a film is adapated from a play — than normal people who actually go to the movies. It’s an easy self-aggrandizing gimmick for critics, though; it allows you to point out that YOU know it was originally a play, unlike the unwashed masses, and is a quick check-box of “Is the play opened up?” on the critic middle manager clipboard. Normal people don’t care because everything is adapted from something, and all that matters is how it plays on screen. If a movie is just two people talking to each other in one long take, if it works and holds attention, shit, that’s a movie. (Ta-da!) Doubt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, but that has as much to do with Doubt the movie as the fact that The Dark Knight is about a character who originated in a comic book. That is to say: None. It’s a movie. It can breathe on its own.

2. I mention all this because Doubt is talky and theatrical and DRAMATIC! and all that’s fine because this is a film that has a lot to say. Would people be happier if there were swooping crane shots and special effects? Sure, John Patrick Shanley isn’t the most inventive visual director, and there are few too many slanted-angle-to-show-moral-confusion shots for my taste. No matter. The film introduces us to four fascinating, stubborn people, who stand in as allegorical viewpoints yet breathe as humans themselves, and allows them to bump into each other. I love movies that establish someone as unyielding and profoundly certain they are correct, and face them off with someone who feels the exact opposite way, with the same certainty. (This is another reason House Of Sand And Fog is so criminally ignored.) Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn are never going to back down, never going to admit the other’s viewpoint has even a slight modicum of truth, and are going to battle until someone dies. They’re both right, and they’re both wrong. Ultimately, a winner does emerge, but only temporarily, and not without a price. And the beauty is that we still aren’t sure what happens, and it doesn’t really matter.

3. Meryl Streep has taken some criticism for being too gothic, too movie monster over-the-top in this film, but it’s funny how no one ever complains when, say, Jack Nicholson takes over a movie. (Aside from The Departed, which was part of the point.) Meryl Streep is a big-ass movie star — if you don’t believe me, just ask her — and it’s a joy just to watch her chew through everything in her path. This is a massive role, showy, loud, meaty, and it’s a kick to see her punch through it, like Ali knocking out chumps. Is she at the same pitch as her co-stars? No. But she’s Meryl Streep, and asking her to be demure and solicitous in a role this commanding would be like expecting Jack Nicholson or Paul Newman to blend in the background. She’d never do that, and why would you ask anyway? This is a screen icon operating at maximum capacity.

4. Philip Seymour Hoffman is as subtle and affecting as always — you get a sense that, researching the role, he decided to play Father Flynn like he didn’t know if he were guilty or not either — and Viola Davis is reaping justified rewards for her one-scene meltdown. But I’d like to talk about Amy Adams, who has the quietest, seemingly simple role. I can’t think of another actress who so casually embodies cheery innocence as well as she does. There’s a brief second where she’s listening to a boys chorus sing Christmas songs, and she sits by herself, just clapping quietly, blissful, guileless, lost in the moment. I don’t know another actress who could pull that off. I don’t know if Amy Adams can play Big Dramatic Moments, and I don’t care: Even when she’s portraying a conflicted, confused nun, she lights up the screen just by showing up. This lady’s on the good side of The Force.

5. We never really find out what happened between Father Flynn and that boy in the rectory, and which side you fall on says more about you than it does the film. (I think he did it.) In a brisk 104 minutes, we meet four compelling people, establish a living breathing school environment, tackle legitimate moral dilemmas and wrestle with topics we’ll spend longer than 104 minutes discussing. It’s a film you can spend a full dinner arguing about afterwards. Could you do that with the play? Sure. But it’s easier to go see a movie. And this one has Meryl Streep gnashing everything in view. I don’t care what this was originally. Right now it’s a movie, a fantastic one.

GRADE: A-