As the head of Focus Features during its finest years, James Schamus had the chance to work with the likes of Ang Lee, Sophia Coppola, and more. And clearly, he's learned a thing or two from them about handling intense material with gentleness and care. For his directorial debut Schamus couldn't have chosen a more difficult author to adapt, Philip Roth, whose many works have frustrated filmmakers unable to properly adapt the material to the screen. Indignation is the best Roth adaptation yet, combining intense performances with a simplified yet resonant interpretation of the author's consummation with fate.
In this case, the fate is that of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a bright, serious Jewish kid and the son of a New Jersey butcher. It's the second year of the Korean War and while other kids his age are being shipped off to fight, Marcus gets around that by escaping to a small, idyllic, conservative Winesburg College in Ohio. It's a match not exactly made in Heaven. Marcus is his own guy, too intelligent and progressive for the stifling blue collar neighborhood (and doting parents) from which he grew up. The hope is that getting away to college will give him the freedom he's long felt unable to find.
But the university system is a system nonetheless, and Marcus has difficulty working within it. He doesn't fit in with his roommates, both Jewish; he doesn't want to join the Jewish fraternity that his parents so hoped he would. And he certainly clashes with the school's dean of students (acclaimed playwright Tracy Letts), who pins Marcus down in a clash of words for the ages. This will be the scene many will be left talking about when "best scenes of the year" discussions come up. A 15-minute intellectual chess match in which Marcus defends his right to be himself against a man who is, frankly, a blowhard but a blowhard from an era that doesn't understand the way things are presently. The title "indignation" is there for a reason; it describes Marcus' attitude as he defiantly battles maintain his intellectual independence.
If there's a glimmer of hope and light in Marcus' life it's the intriguing, gorgeous Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a woman who sees immediately that he has "no business being here" in a stagnant place like Winesburg. But it's also in her that Marcus, who has always prided himself on knowing exactly who he is, begins to learn things about himself that he may not have wanted to know. Their first date ends with unexpected sexual gratification, which throws his life into a tailspin. He doesn't know quite how to handle it. Things like that aren't supposed to happen in sweetly 1951 Ohio; and without any kind of previous experience (or a philosopher’s knowledge to draw from), he falls back on stereotypes with the potential to cause real pain.
It's a fascinating look at a brilliant young man coming into his own in a time that doesn't seem prepared for him, and Schamus handles the material with the respect it deserves. Perhaps it's getting out of the studio system that gave him this kind of freedom, but Schamus leaves plenty of room to let his characters grow. His strict commitment to the novel's gradual pacing works wonders, and the performance shine as a result. You can see Lerman coming into his own, growing into the role of Marcus as the film moves along. And of course, that extended sequence between Lerman and Letts simply wouldn't happen under most studios, or it would have been chopped up and lost any effectiveness. It's such an incredibly fierce, tour-de-force effort from both Lerman and Letts that to miss it would be criminal. Gadon, as well, gives a heartbreakingly poignant performance, while character actors Linda Emond (who is also terrific in The Land, which is out right now) and Danny Burstein give color to a film that is philosophically, intellectually, and visually stimulating. That Indignation is Schamus' first shot out of the gate is, hopefully, a sign that even better things are to come. But if not, then Schamus can rest easy that his debut was a provocative, timeless success.
Rating: 4 out of 5