Doubt is not subtle. Despite the fact the film is about deeds that go unsaid and beliefs that go unproven, Doubt insists on holding your hand, guiding your eye, and, occasionally, smacking you over the head. This is strange, because playwright John Patrick Shanley's play, on which the film is based, favors the opposite tactic: Unsettling and ominous, Shanley's script leaves plenty of room for uncomfortable interpretation. But the film—which Shanley directs with all the nuance of a vaudeville act—seems built mostly for the purpose of begging for Oscars. It also earnestly attempts to reintroduce the oft-parodied gimmick—last seen in the Hammer horror films of the '50s and '60s—of thunder dramatically crashing whenever there's a Very Important Line of Dialogue.
Doubt goes out of its way to never say the word, but it's about a pedophile—or, perhaps more accurately, it might be about a pedophile. Shockingly, the possible perv is a Catholic priest: Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the affable, progressive priest at a conservative Catholic boys school, while Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) is the school's harsh commandant—stern, strict, and with a pitch-black wit. When naïve Sister James (Amy Adams) mentions that Father Flynn has been giving extra attention to a particular student, Sister Aloysius pounces: Positive that Father Flynn's got a boner for altar boys, Sister Aloysius ropes Sister James into a tense, passive-aggressive campaign to reveal his wrongdoing.
There's plenty to like here: The cast's performances are predictably excellent; Roger Deakins' cinematography is gorgeous; and the discomfiting themes of fear, prejudice, and righteousness are potent and gripping. But Shanley just doesn't know when to quit: Unlike his eerily inconclusive play, his film—while not offering any concrete answers—goes several steps further in establishing a verdict on Father Flynn's chimo status. The themes and characters in Doubt are powerful, to be sure—but they also benefit a lot more from understatement than from ham-fisted histrionics.