Cast: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Danny Burstein, Linda Emond
Director: James Schamus
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Philip Roth; that prickly, difficult novelist whose work has been routinely adapted with little success (see The Human Stain and The Humbling) finally gets a filmic treatment which understands his autobiographical, social, and political point of view with Indignation, the directorial debut of longtime independent film producer James Schamus. For here’s a film which subtly keys in on the author’s preoccupation with death, mortality, and fury at intellectual dishonesty in a way which captures the power of his prose as well as expands upon it cinematically. It’s a quiet picture; moving at the kind of unhurried pace which is practically unheard of these days, and perhaps because of this, it allows us to fall into the lives captured in a certain time and place. Truthfully, there are sections in this film which simply feature two or three characters in a room having extended conversations filmed in mostly static medium shots, and in a cinematic universe cluttered with franchise-building nonsense, such moments feel almost miraculous.
As challenging and provocative as much of Roth’s work can be, Indignation feels fairly modest in terms of scope, charting the youthful travails of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) during the early 1950s. A self-serious, earnest Jewish kid with a keen intellectual curiosity, Marcus is book smart enough to leave his humble surroundings in Newark, NJ by earning a college grant to Winesburg college in Ohio. With many of his childhood friends being shipped off to fight and die in the Korean War, Marcus hopes to break free of his controlling father (Danny Burstein) by entering the realm of the intelligentsia, led by the college’s dean of boys (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts). What transpires is a character study of a very prototypical Roth protagonist; given a jolt of youthful naivete by Lerman, who deftly navigates rich emotional and psychological terrain by underplaying his character’s deeply ingrained sexual repression. There’s a love interest, of course, but as played by the sublime Sarah Gadon, Olivia Hutton is no ordinary standard issue blonde gentile bombshell. Instead, she’s a complicated, fully dimensional human being with charisma, physical beauty, and dark secrets.
Marcus infantilizes Olivia as some kind of Donna Reed stand-in; all glamour and reckless attitude without the consequences of past trauma, and their courtship (where she takes the lead in terms of initiating sexual advances) forms the basis for Roth’s dissection of 50s puritanism and its fallout. This is a movie as much about fighting against archaic modes of thinking as it is about one young man’s journey of self-discovery, culminating in a sequence pitting Marcus against the dean in a battle of rhetoric that’s more exhilarating than any car chase or action set-piece. The dialectic involves a secular Jewish atheist against an authoritarian religious figure, and Schamus wisely allows Roth’s words to build power moment by moment, resisting the urge to push in with a manipulative closeup or provide a soundtrack full of soaring strings. Lerman is especially impressive here, going head-to-head with the more theatrically trained Letts and never missing a beat. We can feel Marcus’ resentment growing slowly as he lobbies each intellectual attack, and Lerman absolutely nails the scene’s emotional weight.
Indignation is a film made by adults for adults. Despite what appears superficially to be a coming-of-age narrative, Schamus retains Roth’s pessimistic worldview and obsession with death. This is a bleak film without happy endings or contrived life lessons, but in a way, it’s far more truthful and optimistic about the directions our lives can take. A late scene involving a conversation between Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond) bristles with desperation and compromise. Edmond’s exquisite handling of Roth’s spiky dialogue results in an extraordinarily powerful moment between mother and son that’s tough to watch, but throbs with the sting of real life. The same thing could ultimately be said about the film in general; something which feels lovingly nostalgic but never sentimental, literary but not didactic, a vision born specifically from one man’s autobiographical observations, but always reaching toward the universality of shared experience.