Seasoned producer and writer James Schamus makes his directorial debut with a precise, probing adaptation of a Philip Roth novel.
Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon in Indignation. Photograph via Village Roadshow.
For an 18-minute period in the middle of Indignation, a college head has a heated discussion with one of his students. Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts, The Big Short) is concerned about Marcus Messner's (Logan Lerman, Fury) personal and academic decisions, while the pupil thinks the administrator is not only overstepping his bounds, but unnecessarily rigid in his intrusive line of questioning. Letts and Lerman sling words back and forth, and seasoned producer and scribe turned first-time director James Schamus (perhaps best known for writing the screenplays for Ang Lee's The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and more) knows he need only watch and wait for their fiery confrontation to run its course. It’s a lengthy scene, and yet an intense, urgent and essential one that both fills every second with tension and feels like it flies by in an instant.
Though the content that precedes and succeeds the feature's clear centrepiece obviously varies in detail and structure, the spirited altercation still typifies the entire film. Grappling with clashes – of outlook, ideals, morals and meaning, to start with – sits at the heart of the '50s-set effort, with its timing during a period when the Korean War was whisking away young American men instantly loaded with drama. Everyone within Indignation is ruminating over conflicting choices, the bulk of which involve convention versus individuality.
For Marcus, his decision to leave his hometown to attend university is a way to break free of the control of his New Jersey butcher father (Danny Burstein, Blackhat) and doting mother (Linda Emond, The Family Fang). Once he arrives at Ohio's Winesburg College, however, he's soon stifled by other factors, such as sharing a room and the requirement to attend church. Both subjects fuel his conversation with Caudwell – particularly Marcus' aversion to religious studies as a Jewish-raised atheist. Also a hot topic of chatter is his relationship with fellow student Olivia (Sarah Gadon, TV's 11.22.63) who rallies against expectation and a troubled past in her own alluring and exploring way.
With Indignation stemming from a late-career novel of the same name by literary giant Philip Roth, Schamus' film can only adopt a tone and approach of utmost precision. Every word of dialogue is laden with weight and import – and each mostly interior shot, and painstakingly handsome production detail, too – with the feature careful and calculating at every moment. Indeed, not that filmmaking rears its head as a career option for Marcus, but the movie resembles something purposeful and poised that's easy to imagine the character would make. Also like its protagonist, the finished product proves simultaneously engaging yet distancing, stimulating ample trains of thought but always keeping as much as possible at arm's length.
Perhaps that's why the philosophical debate at the heart of the film works better than the sensitive romance around it. One encapsulates the pervading atmosphere of unease, while the other can't quite find the balance between pensive and passionate. It's certainly not the lead performances that make the latter struggle in comparison to the former, with Lerman and Gadon as committed and meticulous in breathing life into their defiant central duo as their director. Similarly, Letts commands attention beyond being a verbal sparring partner, and Emond steals a late but devastating scene, with the cast expertly channelling the other thing Indignation oozes from start to finish: intrigue.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Director: James Schamus
USA, 2016, 110 mins
Release date: August 18