SIFF 2016 Review: Indignation

Indignation (2016)

dir. James Schamus

written by: James Schamus

starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond


3.5 out of 4 stars

It pains me to watch a movie adapted from fiction if I have not yet read the source material. My reading list is constantly being trumped by books I’ve neglected to read until the silver screen threatened its arrival. Indignation by Philip Roth, which I covered earlier this year, was a challenging examination of youthful self-awareness, -indulgence, and -involvement from the point of view of a New Jersey Jewish atheist displaced at a college in WASPy Ohio.  


Marcus Messner, our indignant focus, is the son of a Kosher butcher, an overprotective, nearly paranoid man for the well-being of his son during the draftable Korean War years.  For the good of the relationship with his father and his own studies (and sanity), Marcus places this distance between them as to focus on college without his movements being tracked.  Logan Lerman, so fantastic in Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fury, takes leading man duties, finally entering adulthood after 16 years in movies.  Inhaling the Roth-ian introspection and intellectualism and breathing out the nervous young man hiding beneath, Lerman adds layers to a complicated character; more impressively, he finds the uncertain teenager beneath the novel’s construction.  Lacking some of the titled indignation, he is able to be despised less, and his mistakes humanize him rather than cause disbelief to the reader.


Writer-director James Schamus finds his feature directorial debut to be a masterful adaptation.  After years of providing writing and/or producing behind Ang Lee’s work, including three Academy Award nominations for Brokeback Mountain (Best Picture as producer) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Best Screenplay and Best Original Song), he has learned his fair share.  Providing a dark but not overbearing touch to the film reduced the heavy quality of the brief novel.  


His actors, spare one, fit into his narrative flawlessly.  With cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt discovering his subjects in intimate lighting, Schamus draws majestic performances from his cast.  Tony-award winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts (August: Osage County, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, respectively), the Dean of Men for Marcus’s stodgy university, knows how to manipulate the tension of a scene, and paired with Lerman under Schamus’s supervision, we have delivered a powerful conflict between a pre- and post-WWII guard in philosophical and bureaucratic conflict.  The rapid delivery of the most dialogue intensive scene of the monologue-heavy novel weighed like a personal disciplinary hearing.  Matching the debate captain fearing for his future with his ultimate decider–as close to a vengeful god as Marcus approaches–causes fear to radiate out of Marcus, washing over the audience.


Monologues do not come much greater than his mother’s ultimatum.  Gracing the role is Linda Emond, most recognizable as Simone Beck in Julie & Julia, handling a self-sacrificial plea in her wishes for her son. Delivered with love and concern, her monologue caps a morose story of innocence and naivety destroying a young man, and the man is unaware of his misrouted concerns.  His mother’s concerns are bottled up to manage keeping her family together, and the burst of his mother grow more affecting with time.  The monologue inserts a new, short-lived phase of their relationship, and a mixture of grief and relief and understanding melt from his mother’s worn eyes.


The one portion of the film that did not work for me was Marcus’s love interest Olivia Hutton, played by Sarah Gadon.  Portrayed as a luminescent but deeply troubled young woman, the role plays as a caricature of a 1950’s movie actress, submissive in nature, who slowly unveils her flaws hidden in plain sight.  Whether she was meant to portray a female representation of the time or Marcus’s romantically clueless fantasy, the characterization was ill-defined.  Inconsistent in delivery, many scenes displaying Olivia’s vulnerability are left as mismatched in tone between Marcus and the woman inspiring his sexual awakening.


I remember a middle school teacher commenting that 13- and 18-year-old boys are the most fool hardy creatures on Earth, and that foolishness has shown to manifest in numerous ways.  The highly intelligent subject of Indignation was beautifully captured by writer James Schamus as he directed a handsome, brooding debut focusing on a personally significant Jewish experience.  While anticipating Ang Lee’s upcoming visual stunner, look for this film to be a notable addition for your intense drama in the summer.


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