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David Poland

By David Poland

Review – Doubt, Part Two – SPOILERS

The great question of Doubt is, “Did he… or didn’t he?”
My thoughts… ALL SPOILER… after the jump…

My feeling about what Father Flynn did or didn’t do evolved in the second viewing of the film. The first time, I was more taken with the old school shifty-eye movie tricks, especially with the kids. Father Flynn’s sweaty self-awareness made him seem like he as doing something wrong. And there is the ultimate red herring… Flynn leaving the school.
But I have to say, I didn’t think he molested that boy or any other in either viewing.
In my first viewing, my feeling was that both Flynn and Donald Muller were gay and that the whispers came with people instinctually feeling that. Flynn joining the priesthood as an alternative to having a gay life seemed perfectly realistic to the time. Muller’s history is laid out by his mother. There is no reason to think that being gay somehow makes a man more likely to seek out sex with a child.
I have been as strong an advocate of the docs about child molestation in the church as anyone. I have seen various incarnations of Deliver Us From Evil and discussed the issues and how the victims and victimizer are framed in some detail. I am not the expert on this that, say, Los Angeles prosecutors are. But I have a pretty good idea of what many of the behaviors of the abused look like. And I didn’t see any of them in Doubt.
There is plenty of content in the film, in less dramatic scenes, that shows where the relationships between the characters are. A pedophilia cliché is the plying of the child with gifts. There is a gift here, but there is no sense at all that it is being given with strings or the hope of them. Likewise, when Donald suffers – for the first time we are seeing it – abuse from a fellow student, we get two different glimpses. First, before his books are knocked to the floor, Flynn and Donald make eye contact and Flynn retreats into his office, clearly afraid of any eyes that might be watching him have any contact with this child. But after the attack, Flynn embraces the child, even before helping him clean up his books. The intimacy shared by these two people doesn’t have the power-laden overtones of a victim and victimizer, but of a real intimacy. Flynn is where Donald finds a level of safety.
Now… one could argue that Donald has fallen in love with his first lover and that this is what I am seeing in that scene. But when we look to other parts of the film, we certainly see no signs of that kind of romantic notion in Donald’s head. Moreover, the discussion of the sacramental wine would indicate that Flynn pulled Donald out of a class and then needed to get him drunk on sacramental wine in order to obtain sex. He then would have had to have sent Donald back to class with wine on his breath and with some great unhappiness on his head, as he acted sad and disconnected according to Sister James. In addition, Father Flynn would have to have told the church’s caretaker about the child drinking wine… why?
But mostly, does the intimacy of the moment in the hallway match the relationship in which Flynn gets a child drunk, has sex of some kind with him, and sends him back to class?
The second time I saw the film, things got clearer for me…
Father Flynn could be gay… but I no longer think it is a clear piece of the subtext. It is really, really clear. Father Flynn has committed some form of mortal sin in his past. It is clear, as Sister Aloysius picks up, that there is a personal stake in the first sermon about doubt… some sort of guilt. She too carries at least one mortal sin in her past, which she does not describe. But after the loss of her husband in the war and her commitment to the church, she has determined that 100% conviction is her strength.
And this is when it started to occur to me that Father Flynn is a sort of Jesus character in the story… having to suffer/die for her sin of conviction so that she may move forward towards a greater truth… a truth that requires that she doubt herself.
It seems to me that Flynn has been through the ringer of not only his self-doubt but the doubt of others who would condemn him even without any actual information. And in the end, we have to decide for ourselves whether he fled out of guilt… or if he turned the other cheek. Did he leave the school because he was afraid of being found out or because he could see that Sister Aloysius’ relentlessness, regardless of the facts in front of her, would never be satisfied and that even if she someday was convinced completely, others would be left with doubts about him? Do we, as an audience, assume that the nun who was allegedly called from his last parish, might have had some real information… or as in the story we are watching, simply have ideas about the non-existent she thinks could be the case with Father Flynn?
One of the things left out of the film that would not, I don’t think, have improved things would be the experience of Flynn in dealing with his bosses in the church. It might have offered more answers, especially about how the church perceives things. But the presumption is that Father Flynn has revealed his mortal sin and all of his truths to another – presumably senior – priest and that behaviors coming out of that knowledge could be seen in a very specific light. This is not the point… though again, to my theory that nothing actually happened with this child, I know of cases where church-known pedophiles were moved to new parishes, but never to more high profile parishes.
The point, it seems to me, is that the only “win” in all of this is Sister Aloysius finally having doubts at the end. She has freed herself from the cell of her own personal dogma and might, as a result, have the chance to enjoy greater love of her religion and the world.
The battle between the old and the new, cited by many as reflected in this text, is there… but seems like the easy reach to me. In fact, the other reason I would say that the church even matters as a part of this story is that it offers both shock and structure to the tale… mostly structure. There are rules, there is a place where children are controlled, there is a hierarchy that must be pressed against for Sister Aloysius to keep pushing her agenda. Structure. But I think we know, knowing the history, that the church hasn’t changed that much. Few organizations have. Even viewing Milk in this light, he learns in the course of the story that he needs to learn to work the system that exists, not to try to yank it up by its roots whole.
In trying to move towards a more loving church, Father Flynn is not just breaking new ground, he is embracing the long-standing traditions of the church and more specifically, of the religion’s teachings of Christ (and, I would say, all other religions). There is no difference between the past and the future when it comes to morality.
There is one triumphant particularly line of this film. Father Flynn pleads with Sister Aloysius that there is nothing wrong with love. And in that moment, she and we are given the moment to consider this… and just how ugly the word “love” can become in the context of this situation. True, we must be vigilant. Life is not flowers and candy. But we must give words to what we feel about others so that words like “love” or “hate” or “marriage” or “money lender” or so many others cannot so easily be spun into something hateful because we fear what they might mean. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Of course, in Doubt, we rarely see the sun. But God does seem to be sending weather to blow some sense into Sister Aloysius’ head. “Who keeps opening my window?,” she asks. God. When the wind sweeps down on her, it seems to be the proverbial finger of God.
The wind blows up terribly in one scene that I consider one of the most subtle in terms of Sister Aloysius… when she sows seeds of doubt in Mrs. Muller’s mind… a woman who already knows that her son is “different” and really, gay… who now must consider whether her church is indulging a priest using him for sexual gratification… and has no power to do anything about it. She is trapped by Sister Aloysius, even though she seems to be willing to make it all go away in a prayer for her son’s future. This, for me, is the greatest sin committed in the film.
But what do you think?

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9 Responses to “Review – Doubt, Part Two – SPOILERS”

  1. John Y says:

    Wonderful in-depth review, David. I just saw the movie tonight, and no other movie this year, with the possible exception of “Synecdoche, New York,” has filled my mind with so many questions.
    This is a movie that deserves to be thought about, talked about, and written about, and your review is a great start.

  2. Michele Turan says:

    Just saw the movie, which I liked very much. I have a theory about the ending that I’ve not come across in all the reviews I’ve read so far. Here it is . . . . perhaps Sister Aloysius is beginning to doubt her own faith in an institution (the Catholic Church) that places men (priests, bishops, etc) above the law and the rules that she has so earnestly and doggedly adhered to, and that is why we see her crying as she says the final words ” . . . I have my doubts.” Father Flynn has actually been rewarded by being given a promotion from his superiors, while Sister A. has to accept the fact that her devotion to her discipline and her sense of morality in this situation are not what the church honors or respects. The “Old Boys Network” is what really counts.

  3. jflix says:

    The overarching point of the film, in my estimation, is that doubt is indeed a necessary and important trait, one that cannot be denied and cannot be fought. None of us really can know anything other than what we experience firsthand…and even then we could–and probably should–question ourselves, challenging ourselves to take on different perspectives and viewpoints. The lack of doubt is what plagues Sister Aloysius throughout the film. The inability to fully reconcile her innumerable doubts with her desire to achieve the kind of certainty Sister Aloysius possesses is what plagues Sister James. It seems to me that the innocence–the moral compass–of Sister James could easily transform into Sister Aloysius version 2.0. The push and pull of inner doubt faced with overwhelming indoctrination is probably what turned Sister Aloysius into the way she is in the film…and could easily take hold of Sister James. The only saving grace for James is that Aloysius, in the end, realizes that she does have doubts…so many doubts. However messy, however open-ended, there is the story’s resolution.
    I think there is a lot to Michele Turan’s question of whether Sister Aloysius’ “doubt” relates to Father Flynn’s guilt or innocence, or to the institution of the Catholic Church. My guess, given that the film wears ambiguity on its sleeve, is that it’s a little bit of both…or a lot of both. Seeing Father Flynn as a “Jesus” character would mean that Sister Aloysius is the only character who has anything to learn…that she is indeed the villain whose comeuppance is her eventual doubt. That would be, I think, too simple. Now that I think Flynn is guilty necessarily…in fact I feel pretty strongly that he’s innocent of the central crime in question. But he has sinned…as has Sister Aloysius…as has everyone. No one is completely innocent…and no one can really be sure of anything. Nor can the audience. And for me, that point is the film’s greatest, most profound success.

  4. Scott H. says:

    I initially agreed with the first interpretation, but my father suggested another explanation that makes a lot of sense: that Donald was actually being molested by the other student, William. Flynn (whether he himself was gay or not) realized what was going on. This explains the encounter between William and Flynn that Sister Alyosius saw out the window, and the dirty fingernails lecture in the gym from which William recoiled. However, Flynn wanted to protect both chidren from exposure and that explains his reluctance to reveal the situation to Sister Aloysius. He was trying to deal with it in his own way, through the confession and compassion route. In essence, he was forced to resign and sacrificed himself rather than out the entire situation to the public, which would have done neither boy any good.
    This makes sense to me because it explains the William character’s presence in the story. Otherwise, there doesn’t seem to be much purpose for this character, especially his knowing grin at the end of the movie.
    Does anyone else have any alternative explanations for Williams role?

  5. Steve Engel says:

    Mostly I concur with David Poland’s interpretation of the film, and I admire the insights of the other posters as well. Father Flynn is a subtle man, both emotionally and politically. He recognizes that taking Sister Aloysius’s complaints to the official level will harm people in the congregation and will hurt his own career–and he sees that he cannot hope to improve anything by allowing the conflict to expand, like those feathers flying from the rooftop in his sermon.
    The issue of power abuse–and resentment of same, which Sister Aloysius feels toward the male hierarchy–is reflected also in the relationships between the kids and between the kids and the adults. Donald Miller’s brutal father and his shrewdly compassionate mother also reflect that theme. One related moment does raise an unresolved question for me about whether Flynn touched the Miller boy inappropriately: when his other altar boy reports to the principal’s office because Sister James sent him there, Mrs. Miller is in Sister Aloysius’ office, and Flynn has just seen her there. When Flynn sends the boy away, the boy asks Flynn what is going on, and Flynn tells him, distractedly and impatiently, “Nothing”. The boy, walking away sullenly, mumbles, “Bullshit.” Does the boy have his own knowledge of Father Flynn’s behavior–or is he just a rebellious 8th Grader expressing his resentment of adult authority?
    The questions we discover in our lives and how we respond to them can be more important than any firm, convinced answers we concoct out of our frustrations with ambiguity. The great question in “Doubt” may be: What is wrong and what is right? Nothing in the film suggests that Flynn’s or Miller’s nature is wrong, nor the natures of Sisters James and Aloysius. Only what we do can be right or wrong–only the choices we make. And our own choices, our own actions, are the only ones for which we are fully accountable. Doubt can guide us in making the least harmful choices among so many options.

  6. Steve Engel says:

    Another thought about jflix’s mention of Father Flynn’s lecture on clean nails: It could be seen as supporting the idea that there is nothing right or wrong about our natures or our preferences–only about our actions. In the church, it is not a mortal sin to have certain kinds of urges (“impure thoughts”)–only if we act on them. If we like our nails long, we still need to observe the proper form of keeping them clean. (I’m not invoking Church doctrine to support or oppose it. I’m trying to identify the sort of worthwhile insight into the characters–and our own lives–that this play/film derives from that doctrine.)

  7. J. James says:

    I’m sorry if I did not read in detail what was posted above but I think y’all missed the mark.
    What love is Flynn talking about? What is he trying to protect? In the first 5 minutes of the film Donald asks Jimmy, “Do I look fat?”. The question stayed with me. I immediatly thought it was an unusual question and indicative of abuse. But we know that Donald is gay from the conversation with the mother where she refers to the boys “nature”. The point of the question was that Donald was trying to find out how Jimmy felt for him. How I could take something so innocent and turn it into something so sick and perverted just goes to show why we give the benifit of the doubt.
    Jimmy harassed Donald because of those advances. Father Flynn encouraged the girl who had the crush on Jimmy to tell the boy because of the boys wavering sense of ego. That is why Jimmy pulled back his hands when Flynn investigated his his washed hands (talked about sexually insecure). That is why Sister Aloysius thought that Flynn was a child molester.
    The row that Jimmy had with Donald explains why he was crying after seeing Donalds mother in the Sister Aloysius’ office. Because he was afraid. This all explains what Flynn was trying to protect and why he could not tell Aloysius certain things. This explains why he was speaking of tolerance and changes. This explains the the hug in the hall after the incident with Jimmy knocking Donalds school books to the floor. This explains why Donald was upset by Flynn’s departure. Flynn was his protector.
    Sister James did not need to be more developed. She played her role and was passive as the observer, like the audience. She held her doubt and that was her virture and why the film was dedicated to her.
    Some sources:
    P.S. Flynn was worried about the discussion in Sister Aloysius’s office because he was concerned that Donald’s sexuality would be exposed. In several points of the film Flynn’s questioning about what he/she said ceases or changes direction after he discovers that nothing about Donald’s sexuality has be revealed.
    The conversation with Donalds mother states that if the boys’ “nature” was revealed, his father would kill him.

  8. J. James says:

    Its important to know that Father Flynn never lies unlike Sister Aloysius. Something sexual did happen, but it was between the two boys (in the first scene they prepare the wine). When Flynn was returning the article of closthing to Donalds locker he told the truth why he did not return it directly.

  9. Jon says:

    I think that the initial perspective shared on this page captures the complexity of the film. However, I too was disturbed by the portrayal of William’s mother as accepting his alleged abuse…”it’s just till June.” Naivity or denial would have been plausible, but that she would have been willing to accept the priest’s alleged behavior so as not to rock the boat is not believable- and makes one wonder about the description of the only two Black adults in the film- one who beats his son and the other who accepts his abuse??? The other piece that didn’t ring true was Sister Jame’s role. That she would be so open in her confrontation with Father Flynn seems out of place for the early 1960’s. And that Sister Aloysius would have moved so quickly and with such initial assurance makes her seem iconic rather than real. However, as the film evolves, its layers of complexity- so well described in the initial entry above (her certainty, emergent doubt, her rigid adherence to conviction as defense against her initial “sin”, the political differences between them and the doubt we have as to whether that is the subtext of her attacks…) make for a worthwhile viewing experience. By the way, to the last entry author, I think, with all due respect, that you’ve confused the initial other alter boy, who also said “bullshit” with the boy who flinched and knocked William’s books down.” Thanks for listening.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon