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By John Barry | Posted 12/24/2008

In one of the standout scenes in Doubt, Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) interrupts basketball practice to ask a small group of 14-year-old kids to check out his fingernails. "They're a little long," he notes, "but I keep them clean." So goes the movie itself: an extended, polished, and creepy voyage into the Catholic Church's moment of self-examination.

Doubt takes place in 1964, in the era of Vatican II, when the Church was beginning to open itself up to the world, under the guidance of Pope John XXIII. It's never alluded to directly in the movie, but it's always in the background, an unsettling element in an unsettling story.

But the plotline becomes pretty clear immediately following the opening credits. We see two young altar boys, students at St. Nicholas school, pouring wine in a chalice for communion. The camera follows them out to the altar, but not without pausing to look at the wine bottle. What could possibly go wrong here?

If there's anyone who can sniff it out, it's Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep, in a bone-chilling performance), the nun of everyone's nightmare. Dressed in a cowl with a black bonnet straight out of puritan 18th-century New England, Streep makes her Devil Wears Prada boss lady look downright jovial. As a paranoid, ruler-wielding principle, she's snooping preemptively into the dark spaces of everyone around her. And the worst thing is that she's usually right.

Father Flynn is a walking can of worms. He's a charismatic priest, right out of the Vatican II mold, with many cute middle-school altar boys to distract him. Sister Aloysius is determined to open him up, even though there's no evidence that he's actually been doing anything untoward. When the priest gets suspiciously protective of a lonely black kid, she swoops in.

It's a rare opportunity to watch two alpha actors duke it out without having to get in bed with one another. In this performance, Sister Aloysius meets her match, and even looks a little cartoonish against the smooth, unbreakable Father Flynn. Hoffman and Streep keep he tension at a low but constant boil, assisted by a calming Amy Adams, who plays Sister James, a young teacher caught refereeing the conflict.

The crown performance, however, is delivered by Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller, the mother of the young altar boy. As director John Patrick Shanley boldly focuses on her, drippy nose and all, in one swoop she makes the ethical limning look irrelevant. So did he or didn't he? What difference does it make to the mother of a black kid who has been set up for a lifetime of abuse? As we walk out, staring at our own fingernails, that's the most unsettling question of all.

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