(USA, 110 min.)
Written and directed by James Schamus
Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein
James Schamus makes a film just as well as he puts one out there. The former co-President of Focus Features and producer/executive producer of films such as Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon has ample experience with screenwriting and his work on The Ice Storm reverberates in this similarly themed story of disaffected young Americans. Instead of drafting some words for Ang Lee to helm, though, Schamus offers his feature directorial debut with Indignation and it’s a taut, expertly crafted drama driven by story, character, and a quartet of powerhouse performances.
Indignation is simple in structure and delivery, but it’s a powerfully complex drama packed with weight and meaning. The film’s delicate simplicity is its strength as Schamus adapts the novel by Philip Roth and distils its dramatic essence into four key figures. Indignation gives Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Logan Lerman a notable dramatic leap forward as Marcus Messner, a young man who confronts prejudice at Winesburg College, a small Catholic university in Ohio. Marcus hails from a small Jewish family in New Jersey where his father (Danny Burstein), a butcher, frets away as boys Marcus’s age die in Korea. A scholarship to school saves him from the draft, yet the whiff of death lingers in the air as every frame of Indignation restlessly frets with the anxiety of a nation that sees more war than peace. The young man shows signs of suffocation in his final days before going off to school, but the impatience he feels is nothing compared to what he encounters at his new school.
Figures two and three both appear on campus and open Marcus’s eyes to new experiences. Olivia Hutton, played by Canadian star Sarah Gadon (Maps to the Stars), catches Marcus’s attention with a voluptuously fine leg that diverts his attention from his studies, while Dean Caudwell, played by Tracy Letts (Wiener-Dog), draws Marcus’s well-deserved ire when the campus headmaster repeatedly dogs him and infers too much into Marcus’s Jewish faith or lack thereof. Winesburg wears its Catholicism on its sleeve, as students must attend forty masses per year in order to graduate, enduring fire and brimstone lectures on sin and wickedness as they nurse their hangovers and scope out potential dates, so both Olivia and Dean Caldwell pervert Marcus’s image of this structured and civil society.
Olivia, for one, comes off a little too strongly when she goes down on Marcus during their first date. Marcus, a virgin, thinks that Olivia seems far too nice a girl to be doing that kind of thing. What he doesn’t get, Olivia insists, is that love sometimes expresses itself in different ways. With the Dean, however, Marcus confronts bigotry that masks itself as faith.
Anger permeates the film as Marcus, Olivia, and Caldwell push back against opposing forces. This tenacity and passion is where Schamus’s strength as a director shines. The film wears its understated anger within its modest composure and mannered conservatism that defined the era. The performances reflect this restraint even when they hit their most explosive peaks.
Lerman is fiercely compelling as he fronts his ignorance to love in one thread and butts heads with institutionalised ignorance in the other. How little he truly sees Olivia reflects how minutely Caldwell sees him, and as Lerman steps into the shoes of an angry young man, he thankfully avoids the kind of irksome self-loathing that someone like Jesse Eisenberg might have brought to this role. Instead, his Marcus is a keenly attentive, evenly tempered, and wisely rational character. Wide-eyed and boyish, Marcus is consistently sympathetic as Lerman simmers with rage.
Gadon and Letts are equally good in challenging supporting turns. As Olivia, Gadon reflects the inquisitive innocence of Lerman’s Marcus, especially done up in the Pleasantville-like sweaters that costume designer Amy Roth provides. Where Marcus cooks in his own anxiety, though, Olivia bursts with passion as Gadon keenly plays up Olivia’s carefully calculated composure. A fiery monologue in the library stacks is a highlight of the film as Gadon exposes Olivia bare and defiantly strips back the social norm that says it’s better to leave some things unsaid. Letts, on the other hand, goes toe-to-toe with Lerman in two crucial scenes in which Caldwell interrogates Marcus. The first encounter is nearly fifteen minutes of finely balanced rage that seethe with indignity as Caldwell makes every effort to jeopardise Marcus’s career.
The fourth and final figure of the film is, of course, Marcus’s mother. Played by Linda Emond (Julie & Julia), Mrs. Messner’s presence gives Indignation one of those tumultuously powerful gut punches that turns the film on its heel. Mrs. Messner, in another of the film’s gutsy monologues, makes a well-calculated plea for her son to abandon his interest in Olivia. The mother’s case against her son’s girlfriend is the film’s ultimate twist as she sacrifices her own happiness in hopes that it will ensure some peace for her son. All it takes is one arresting close-up and a few pages of script delivered with pitch-perfect conviction, and the two women of Indignation create a minefield in which there are no easy escape routes for Marcus or the audience.
As the film simmers with conflicting emotions and percolates with anger, Indignation defies us to feel any less incensed. Framed by images of war, Indignation shows an America in which citizens are constantly fighting for freedom—more so at home and within than abroad. The film is a powder keg of passion and rage.
Indignation is now playing in limited release.