Award-winning screenwriter, veteran producer, and former CEO of Focus Features James Schamus’ directorial debut Indignation (2016) made me think that it will instill warmth like John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015). The very opposite happened. Unlike Crowley’s clear-sighted coming-of-age tale, Indignation is about a boy reflecting on the limited paths he can choose from.
The film is set in 1951. The year many young Americans returned in body bags from the Korean War. Like the story’s young protagonist, the American nation was also caught up in a state of anxiety. But the film isn’t a sprawling recreation of the turbulent time period. It is more introspective and much of the actions take place inside 20th century institutional buildings. The direction is unshowy and its emotional undercurrents may not satisfy those expecting a conventional coming-of-age tale. Schamus’ aesthetic sensibilities could find a kindred spirit in Todd Haynes’ imagery (especially last year’s Carol). Indignation could be defined as a story of young man whose life is transformed by small-scale choices. But, it has elusive, enigmatic and beautiful layers which transcend that simple storyline.
Indignation is based on Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Philip Roth’s novel of the same name. I’ve only read his acclaimed “Goodbye, Columbus,” but the general opinion is that his novels aren’t adaptable for the screen. Previous efforts to adapt his novels (“The Human Stain”, “The Humbling”) didn’t receive much love from general viewers and critics. This film is considered as the only successful adaptation of a Roth’s novel. Roth wrote Indignation at the age of 75 (in 2008), looking back at the time (1950s) he attended liberal-arts college.
Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is a straight-A student, individualist, and an atheist growing up in the Jewish neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. He works in the ‘kosher’ butcher shop of his overbearing father. Marcus receives a scholarship to study in (fictional) Winesburg College, Ohio. His father is happy that his son is escaping from the draft (Marcus’ cousins die in the Korean War). But he endlessly worries that his son will use his newfound freedom. That he might fly out of their orthodox nest.
Although Schamus’ frames are dappled with lovely sunlight, the atmosphere is full of repressed energy rather than passion. Marcus feels a bit liberated at Winesburg College. There’s alienation too which is due to the compartmentalization he finds within the campus. Of course, he meets a girl. He spies on her one night in the library, watching her beautiful legs dangling over the side of a chair unblinkingly. Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) sort of presents Marcus a possibility to escape from the humdrum.
After the initial passive-aggressive judgment, Marcus tries to stay away from Olivia. Although, upon hearing her dark past, he can’t help but develop a tentative relationship. A confrontation with the roommate makes Marcus relocate to an isolated dorm. When Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) finds out about this, he invites Marcus to his trophy-filled, plush office room. The meeting leads to a lengthy confrontation. Caudwell is a Christian Puritan; Marcus holds exactly opposite values. They argue on matters concerning faith, changing of dorms, atheism, and the worth of Nobel Prize winner Bertrand Russell. This confrontation scene serves as the perfect anchor to ruminate upon Marcus’ lonely battle to preserve his will and temperament. The stunning argument also puts indignant Marcus in the path of fatalistic trajectory.
Director Schamus doesn’t idealize his protagonist. He captures both Marcus’ ideals and his bull-headed nature. His camera mostly remains stationary and the conversation scene, full of neatly arranged single shots, is composed like a smooth tennis game. Schamus doesn’t go overboard with stylistics. He lets the dialogue and the performers bring out the implicit meaning and issues.
Schamus made Indignation in a 24-day schedule and took one full day for the astounding (16-18 minute) scene between Tracy Letts and Logan Lerman. (He shot the verbal action in a single take after a lot of attempts). The workmanship he brings to the narrative, without ever turning the archetypes into cliches, is highly commendable. The non-linear narration at certain points and the overly subdued emotions in a few scenes gave an uneven tone to his direction. But that’s a minor flaw in what is, otherwise, an elegant debut.
It’s hard to perfectly sum up or express what Indignation is about. It could mean how we are walking on a tightrope called life, reaping tragic consequences for the seemingly random, small choices. You could perceive it as an exploration of the duality between idealism and pragmatism. It is sort of a well-crafted rant against conformity. It makes for a haunting movie experience, even if you are unsure about the film’s themes and philosophy. Part of the reason is the earnest, melancholic tone which makes it easy for us to empathize and relate.
And, the amazing cast gracefully infuses life into the characters. Logan Lerman fills his character with a profound, inner life. The way he articulates his fury is as fascinating as the complicated thicket of emotions that stop him from saying a word. Tony Award-winning actor Tracy Letts is more than perfect as the ultra-conservative, authority figure. His sharp diction is an exciting thing to witness.
Indignation (112 minutes) is an elegiac, enigmatic and layered tale of lives shaped by minor decisions. It is one of the most beautifully acted films of the year.
By Arun Kumar
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