From “The Big Lebowski” to “The Hunger Games,” Philip Seymour Hoffman played in many iconic movies throughout the years.
His career came to a sudden end Feb. 2, when he was found dead in an apartment in Greenwich Village, N.Y. In light of that event, I decided to explore some of Hoffman’s films that I had never seen before.
Having already seen “Capote” and most of his older films, my first choice was the 2008 film “Synecdoche, New York,” but after watching it, I decided I couldn’t recommend it to anyone who doesn’t like confusing and postmodern drama.
In the end, I settled on Hoffman’s 2008 film “Doubt,” in which Hoffman plays Father Flynn, a progressive priest at the Catholic grade school in the Bronx during the early ‘60s, alongside Meryl Streep who plays the unflinching, conservative nun Sister Aloysius.
The movie opens with a sermon given by Flynn about the title word of the film. Flynn claims doubt can be as unifying as certainty. As an example, he used the widespread fear and doubt most Americans felt after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy the prior year, and how that brought many people together.
“Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty,” Father Flynn said in the sermon. “When you are lost, you are not alone.”
Most of the film revolves around a conflict between Aloysius and Flynn regarding the school’s first black student Donald Miller, played by Joseph Foster. The school, which serves many conservative Irish and Italian families, is not immune from the prevailing attitudes of the time period. Miller, who was a shy and reserved child, is often bullied at school and suffers from an abusive father at home.
Flynn takes the opportunity to befriend Miller and tries to protect him from the other children who bully him. However, his private meetings with the boy soon raise the suspicions of the forever-innocent, young nun Sister James, played by Amy Adams.
James passes her suspicions to Aloysius, who seizes the opportunity to accuse Flynn of providing Miller with alcohol before molesting him.
The tale is compelling, but the movie is less about the story than it is about the film’s title word.
Flynn is as certain of his innocence as Aloysius is of his guilt. James is often caught between the two, torn by her desire to believe in Flynn’s good nature and protect her pupils.
Without spoiling the story, the movie ends in a way that stays true to its theme and works wonderfully with the opening scene.
What really causes “Doubt” to shine is the truly outstanding acting. Hoffman and Streep are well-known, top-notch actors, but the real scene stealer is Viola Davis who plays Miller’s mother.
Though she is hardly present on screen except for an 11-minute scene with Streep, Davis manages to captivate the audience and brings the reality of 1964 racism crashing into the relatively isolated grade school. The scene takes place when Aloysius brings her suspicions to Miller’s mother. Though she is very emotional and distraught, Mrs. Miller begs her not to pursue the accusation, fearing the boy will be expelled and later killed either at the now-integrated public schools or at the hands of his abusive father.
Davis’ acting manages to encompass the desperation of woman in a truly tragic and untenable situation better than any scene I have ever seen before. It is no wonder she was nominated for an Oscar for the role and later picked up major roles in movies such as “The Help” and “Ender’s Game.”
Hoffman often plays characters who are socially awkward or creepy, and it is interesting Flynn remains one of his most personable roles despite being an accused child abuser. Hoffman plays the caring priest so well it is hard to imagine Flynn as guilty. In fact, his scenes with Foster are nothing short of heartbreaking, and most of his arguments with Streep are expertly crafted.
Streep’s performance is equally as skillful. From her overbearing attitude toward students to her steadfast conviction that Flynn is guilty despite a lack definitive evidence, Streep portrays an interesting and multifaceted antagonist. She is conservative to the point of intolerance, and seemingly despises Flynn because he uses a ballpoint pen, which she believes causes bad penmanship, and takes three lumps of sugar in his tea. Yet, there are a few scenes where her humanity and motivations shine through her steely demeanor.
At the very least, “Doubt” is an often-overlooked gem in Hoffman’s filmography and it might even be one of his best films. Its all-around phenomenal cast turns what could have been a boring story into a riveting drama.
“Doubt” is available to rent on Amazon Instant Video for $2.99 and to buy for $9.99, but it is not available on Netflix or Hulu video streaming services.
Andrew Akers is a part-time reporter for The Times. He can be reached at email@example.com.