Indignation (2016)

Based on the novel by Philip Roth.

It’s widely believed that one’s destiny is forged by choice and it’s these very choices that can make or break a person. With that said, some of us can seemingly breeze through life, making one bad decision after the next, each with little to no real consequence, and then make that one innocent mistake that ultimately ends up sealing our fate. American novelist Philip Roth knows this but our protagonist Marcus perhaps doesn’t. See, while Marcus appears to be too ‘straight and narrow’ to diverge from the upright path he’s currently wandering, every deviation seems to have its own ramification, each collating like a series of clouds, every misstep adding to a brewing storm that’s sure to fall soon.

'I'm ready to change my Facebook relationship status if you are.'
‘I’m ready to change my Facebook relationship status if you are.’

Based on Philip Roth’s 29th novel of the same name, Indignation takes place in 1951 and focuses on Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), an intelligent working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey, who receives a scholarship and travels to a small, conservative college in Ohio in hopes of becoming a lawyer — the grant exempting him from being drafted into the Korean War. Once there, Marcus meets the stunning Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a mesmeric undergrad in his class. The pair go on one date which concludes with a surprising (borderline startling) act of passion. It shakes Marcus, leaving him both horrified and obsessed with Olivia and her sexually forward nature. The rest of the film follows Marcus as he tries to deal with the sudden surge of complications that arise due to his connection with Olivia, issues of sexual repression, cultural disaffection and the orthodox morals of his Christian college causing a strain on his personal life, studies and the relationship with his folks: his kosher butcher father, Max (Danny Burstein), and his mother, Esther (Linda Emond).

For the last 25 years, James Schamus’ name has been synonymous with smart, groundbreaking entertainment, the 56-year-old responsible for penning and producing high-status flicks such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005). Indignation sees Schamus (the founder of Focus Features) jump into the director’s seat, the award-winning screenwriter crafting a tight, confident debut which balances the nuances of the Roth’s novel — its semi-autobiographical elements confronting just what might’ve happened had things gone differently for Roth — with the intimacy and sharpness of cinema. In the past Roth’s writing has proven to be a tad difficult to adapt — simply look at The Human Stain (2003) and The Humbling (2014) — but Schamus seems to have captured the author’s radical views and dry wit, trusting in the material whilst ensuring that the flick retains the same sense of complexity as a literary piece.

I've got a clever caption for this image but I'd probably butcher it!
I’ve got a clever caption for this image but I’d probably butcher it!

Schamus doesn’t just regurgitate Roth’s writing in his translation, the first-time director making use of imagery and narration to express the story’s poignant themes. For instance, Indignation opens with two unrelated scenes (which Schamus has added to Roth’s story), scenes that’ll only make sense once the movie has ended, these bookends tying the whole thing together neatly. The first is of an elderly woman who stares at a wallpaper pattern (the camera blurring in and out of focus), and the second, a couple of soldiers exchanging gunfire during the Korean War. The film’s centerpiece sequence is also a knockout, a riveting sixteen-minute two-hander between Marcus and the formidable Dean Caudwell (who admires the young man’s tenacity), superbly portrayed by playwright Tracy Letts, where they argue over liberty and religion in a tense master-versus-pupil showdown that’s modestly shot and superbly acted. Indignation is also a great exercise in restricted point of view, the film retaining its novelistic elements by (essentially) sticking with Marcus for the entire film, this keeping the story’s mystery component, well … a mystery.

Performance wise, there isn’t a weak link in the cast. Logan Lerman, who’s best known for embodying the titular teen fantasy hero in the Percy Jackson films (2010-13), is totally convincing as the single-minded, moralistic Marcus, Lerman graduating from teenager to adulthood with a stellar act. Sarah Gadon, Enemy (2013), is utterly mystifying in the dream girl role, the 29-year-old babe balancing the character’s outer glow with inner pain, transforming Olivia into a shattering figure of impending concern. Like staring at an oncoming car accident, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the nearing ‘calamity,’ the young Marcus eventually finding himself drawn to Olivia’s erotic interests, willing to accept the risks of getting too close to a psychologically damaged soul who’s barely holding it together. Last but certainly not least, Linda Emond, Julie & Julia (2009), delivers a helluva maternal protest as Esther, Marcus’ concerned and disapproving mother.

Shave or wax?
Shave or wax?

In terms of its period backdrop, Indignation achieves a lot with a modest budget. The costumes by Amy Roth, American Gangster (2007), are spot-on, as are the sets and various shooting locations. Schamus also manages to capture that unsettling energy that plagued America during the days of the Korean War, particularly within families who were still trying to deal with their losses from World War II, Marcus’s father freaking out over the thought of his son being shipped off to battle. Alas, Indignation wavers (ever so slightly) when it comes to its ending, the flick concluding too hastily for patrons to fully absorb — a minor blemish in an otherwise admirable debut.

A plaintive glimpse into an unstable era in American history, Indignation stands as a wonderfully accomplished feature, one that’s tragic, bittersweet and bleakly comic all at the same time — what’s more impressive, however, is the fact that it’s James Schamus’ first time behind the camera, too. Here’s looking towards a bright ‘second act’ for the budding filmmaker. Concluding with enough heft to rival your classic tragedy, Indignation certainly leaves a dent (even if it takes a bit of time to process) — you can mark my words on that one.

4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Indignation is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia