James Schamus has produced some of the best American art films of the past few decades, working with directors Todd Solondz, Edward Burns, Todd Haynes, Cindy Sherman and, most significantly, Ang Lee. To write and direct his first film without big stars and to base it on a Philip Roth novella is a risky undertaking. Schamus’ Indignation proves that he has learned his lessons well. The film makes the most of the book’s first-person narration through neatly composed close-ups and is well steeped in authentic fifties ambiance (hues of brown and tan, sweater vests, and wood-paneled libraries). Set in 1951, the film’s cast does a fine job of conveying Roth’s wryly critical vision of a conformist decade bedeviled by confused attitudes about sexuality.
Marcus Messner is the diligent and dutiful only child of an over-possessive Newark kosher butcher and a doting Jewish mother. Hoping for a better future, and wishing to avoid the war in Korea, he enters Winesburg College in Ohio (a tip of the hat to Sherwood Anderson’s neurotic America). Marcus is a brilliant student, a determined atheist, and a follower of Bertrand Russell. He believes in reason and tries to figure out what is best for him and his future. Yet enlightenment isn’t sufficiently powerful. Marcus, who narrates his story, appears to be dying during a Korean War battle in the film’s opening scene. His is a story about fate, God, church, authority, and a father who does not know best, at least in Marcus’ opinion. Still, hovering over Marcus’ head are his father’s ominous words: “One small mistake can change everything.”
Logan Lerman (from the Percy Jackson series) brings admirable self-assurance to the role of Marcus, a young man who can’t come to grips with the confusing demands of Winesburg’s conformist institutional life. The role is a breakthrough for the actor, who dominates nearly every scene. He draws us into Marcus’s determination to do the right thing despite being continually stymied by those who don’t (or won’t) accept his reasoned view of the world. His antagonists include apathetic roommates, who mock his sincerity and romantic inclinations.
Relationships with women rattle Marcus the most. On his first date at school, the beautiful Olivia Hutton (Sara Gadon) surprises him with a sexual favor so bold he is left flabbergasted. He can barely speak to her the next day, explaining to his roommates that her behavior — as pleasurable as it may be — reflects that fact that Olivia is “the child of divorce.” Marcus wants to understand people, but his inexperience makes it impossible for him to comprehend the nooks and crannies of human nature. A scar on Olivia’s wrist from an attempted suicide attempt confounds Marcus. Her honesty matches his forthrightness, but her insecurity and sexual boldness overwhelm him. Gadon’s Olivia is a convincing sexual aggressor. Prim and proper (until she’s not), with an exquisite smile and eyes that look hard at (and through) Marcus, Olivia moves with intimidating grace and assurance. Gadon’s performance is smart and sexy. Any young man would be smitten. Olivia makes it her business to probe Marcus’ insecurity while hiding her own terrible fragility.
As the plot progresses, Dean Caudwell holds Marcus’ fate in his hands. He calls him into his office to grill the student about why he felt compelled to move out of a dorm and into a single, less desirable room. In this 20-minute scene all of Marcus’s ideas about conformity, atheism, justice, and tolerance are tossed at the bullying Caudwell (Tracy Letts’ performance as the sanctimonious academic is frustratingly perfect.) The Dean dismisses each of Marcus’s reasoned arguments with impunity. Most of the dialogue is taken straight from Roth’s book. This is a wise choice; the scene is beautifully written and the actors hit their notes just right.
“I take it you are familiar, Dean Caudwell, with the writings of Bertrand Russell,” asserts Marcus. “Bertrand Russell, the distinguished British mathematician and philosopher, was last year’s winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.” Marcus then expounds on Russell’s argument against Christianity. After some discussion, the Dean blasts out his response: “I admire your ability to memorize and retain abstruse reading matter even though I don’t necessarily admire whom or what you choose to read and the gullibility with which you take at face value blasphemies spouted by an immoralist of the ilk of Bertrand Russell … ” And he goes on. And on.
The comedy comes from the clashing sincerity of the characters’ intentions. Both men are earnest to a fault. Twenty minutes is a long time for a scene but, as in the book, this dramatic confrontation makes the stakes clear: this conflict is about who is in control — institutions (including the church) or the individual. The Dean quietly picks at Marcus’s vulnerabilities; the boy boldly counters every criticism. The debate foreshadows the upheavals, philosophies, and disillusionment of the ’60s.
Beneath the intellectual battle there’s an intimate psychological struggle, the effort to come of age despite troubled family dynamics, sexual uncertainty, mental illness, and the threat posted by war. Roth’s dialogue hasn’t often made it to the big screen, and his pointed writing nimbly shapes the dark humor of Marcus’ plight. The author’s theme is clear: “The incomprehensible way one’s most banal, incidental, even comical choices achieve the most disproportionate result.” Schamus wisely lets the performers and the writing do the work, dig deeply into the enigmatic emotional lives of the characters. In these increasingly lunatic times we are well served by films like Indignation, which bypass body counts and superheroes in order to explore the mysteries and eccentricities of human behavior.