Doubt is a movie about Meryl Streep. It has all the things you want it to have—a satisfying visual texture, a cold energy, a prurient central mystery, I-fucking-hate-you dialogue, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and very few characters (i.e., lots of Streep). She plays a nun, so most of her is wrapped in black, except her eyes and nose and mouth and famous cheeks. In a review of the movie in the New York Times the other day, Manohla Dargis wrote: "The performance may make no sense in the context of the rest of the film, but it is—forgive me, Father—gratifying nunsense." It has to be pointed out that (1) that sentence is embarrassing, and (2) in a movie built purely on dialogue and facial expressions, it always makes sense to include Streep's face. (Dargis's argument is a critic's argument: "Ms. Streep appears to be in a Gothic horror thriller while everyone else looks and sounds closer to life or at least dramatic realism." I'm not totally clear on what "dramatic realism" is, but I'll take "thriller" any day.) Like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this is a movie based on a play about people sitting indoors and arguing; with such a limited visual scope, as Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? proved, you need a barn to burn, emotionally speaking. Who else can set a barn on fire with their face?
Streep's face makes an entrance early on. A kid in a pew during Catholic services leans forward, exhausted, resting against the back of the pew in front of him, when a strange black shape bows into the frame, birdlike, and the top of the shape pivots to reveal that it's a head. It's Streep's head. "Straighten!" she says to the child, and the kid bolts upright. In the lobby before the movie started, I overheard a woman saying to her friend, "I love anything with Meryl Streep—anything." And once it started, it occurred to me that that woman must be in proverbial heaven: John Patrick Shanley, directing this adaptation of his own play, strips away almost everything but her. Even Hoffman, who's marvelous as always, comes off as kind of minor, the object of Streep's attention and an object for her to act against. "You haven't the slightest proof of anything!" he says (the assist). "But I have my certainty!" she says (for the win!).
Doubt is the best kind of challenging movie—where the intellectual challenge facing the characters becomes an intellectual challenge for you, the person watching it, and the difficulty, the doubt, the taboo question, has enough batteries to long outlast the movie, to bug you in the car on the way home and keep bugging you days later. It's not just that the priest (Hoffman) may or may not be guilty of molesting a schoolboy (can you imagine such a thing?), or that the moral standard-bearer (Streep) so set on destroying him has no proof of anything; those elements of the conflict are established within 15 minutes and are easy to chew on. What's challenging are the ensuing complications, like when you find yourself sympathetic to a mother uninterested in knowing the truth and fully willing to abide—on loving, rational terms—the possibility of her son being molested. What if the kid, who's black, needs the prestige of this particular Catholic school to do well in life? What if the kid is gay?
The final turn of the movie I won't describe, so as not to spoil the surprise, but it has solely to do with Streep's character. Really, she is the main attraction here, in makeup befitting a corpse. This movie is Streep porn. It presents her as a thing worthy of a fetish. It's an hour and a half of her just doing things: digging some food out of her teeth, looking intensely at a bunch of pages in the blurry foreground, not getting the seat she wants in a room, sitting at the head of a table while someone very slowly pours milk in everyone's glasses, responding to a request with a "yes" that is the opposite of a yes, kicking a fallen branch out of a pathway, winding a bunch of twine around her fingers, talking over a ringing telephone, standing in a harshly blowing wind, screwing in an overhead light bulb with a long stick, petting a cat. She does more than anyone while barely doing anything.