Nun Better

Meryl Streep in Doubt, plus Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.

Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysius in Doubt 

Doubt (Miramax Films) has a flaw that movie critics will fall on like crazed Swedish vampires and most audiences won’t care about at all: It’s a filmed play that feels like exactly that. Director John Patrick Shanley, who adapted the screenplay from his own hit drama, makes all the classic stage-to-screen mistakes. He writes in new characters to flesh out what was a spare four-person show; dutifully “opens out” the story by setting random scenes in public places; and hammers home thematic points with overly neat visual reinforcements. (When in trouble, he cuts to a close-up of something: a cross, a cup of tea, a trembling hand.)

So, fine: Cinematically, Doubt is something of a dud. But if it remains a play, it’s an ingeniously structured one, with smart, thought-provoking words spoken by fabulous actors, and how often do most of us get to see one of those, whether in three dimensions or two? If the foregoing disclaimer-laden rave didn’t convince you, let me put it another way: In this corner, in a nun’s habit, Meryl Streep. In that corner, in a chasuble, Philip Seymour Hoffman. Like another play recently translated to the screen, Frost/Nixon, Doubt turns head games into blood sport.

It’s the early ‘60s, just after the Catholic Church reforms of Vatican II, and Father Flynn (Hoffman) is the hip new priest at a diocese in the Bronx. Hip, by the standards of this hidebound lace-curtain Irish world, means that he treats his congregation as human beings and writes sermons that bear some relation to their actual lives. Father Flynn’s popularity among the students at the local parochial school irks the principal, Sister Aloysius (Streep). She’s an old-school Catholic, ardently policing the line between secular and sacred. (Her dismissal of “Frosty the Snowman” as a “pagan hymn” is a comic high point.)

A naive young teacher, Sister James (Amy Adams, who seems to be getting younger with each role), calls Sister Aloysius’ attention to a potential impropriety; Father Flynn has taken the parish’s only black student (Joseph Foster II) under his wing, calling him out of class for one-on-one meetings. Sister Aloysius jumps to the obvious conclusion, but is it really so obvious? Thus begins an intricate spiral of insinuations, accusations, and counteraccusations that culminates in a standoff worthy of Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky.

Streep plays her awful character (well, great character; awful person) with compassion and loads of wit—she might be accused of having too much fun with the part, but, as with Mamma Mia!, I rather enjoyed being snowed under by the overbrimming force of Streep’s personality. Viola Davis should be promptly FedEx-ed an Oscar for her one-scene showstopper as the boy’s mother. And Philip Seymour Hoffman manages to make the movie’s title mean something—only he knows what his character did with that little boy, and he’s not telling.

Doubt would be my recommendation for the movie to see with your parents during this year’s holiday visit—not because priestly pedophilia is a hallmark of the Yuletide season, but because this is the kind of film that sparks long conversations: Not “Thumbs up or thumbs down?” but “Did he do it?” and “Should she have pursued him?” and that first of all religious and epistemological questions: “How can we ever know?”

Slate V: Critics on Doubt, The Reader, and The Day the Earth Stood Still

Gran Torino(Warner Brothers) imagines what would happen if the classic Clint Eastwood hero—Dirty Harry, Unforgiven’s Bill Munny, A Fistful of Dollars’ Man With No Name—aged into a racist coot who sat on his front porch with a rifle and a six-pack, decrying the invasion of his Detroit suburb by “spooks” and “gooks.” It’s not much of a stretch; many of Eastwood’s iconic roles combine creeping racial anxiety with an element of vigilante justice. But Walt Kowalski, a just-widowed Korean War vet with a grudge against his Hmong neighbors, is Eastwood’s furthest venture yet into the comic possibilities of his flintier-than-thou persona.

Walt is a crank and a bigot, but no fool; he can see that his nerdy teenage neighbor Thao (Bee Vang) is being pressured to join a violent neighborhood gang. So Walt scares the gangbangers away with a vintage weapon and a world-class squint. He strikes up a reluctant friendship with Thao, who helps him with household tasks and envies Walt’s mint-condition ‘72 Gran Torino. Thao learns the art of asking out girls and the efficacy of a well-timed dirty joke. Walt learns that “gooks”—at least the unarmed, studious kind—are people too. As for “spooks” … well, the jury remains out, apparently.

Eastwood fans will love this movie, but I confess that I’ve never been one of them. The man does have a priceless way with a dry putdown (the winner here has to be “Good day, Puss-cake”), and as an actor, he’s a master at riffing on his own cinematic myth. But I can’t get past his lead-footed direction and the ponderous Manicheanism of his worldview. Gran Torino ends with a fantasy of vigilante violence that squanders all the goodwill its main character has spent the movie accruing. This is the better by far of the two movies Eastwood has made this year, a stripped-down alternative to the overupholstered Changeling. But both movies share a moral vision—bad guys as leering sickos, good guys (and girls) as sacrificial lambs—that shuts down the possibility of any real, well, doubt.