Indignation January 26, 2017
Indignation (2016), adapted from the 2008 Philip Roth novel of the same name, is a coming-of-age tale of brutal initiative. Over the course of its two hours does its protagonist still grow older and wiser, increasingly getting in touch with the more difficult components of his identity, as expected. But he, and us, are persistently reminded during the film’s length of the capacity the cruel hands of fate have and of the oft insufferable effects rigid societal expectation can have on a person. Being set in 1951, utilizing the Korean War as its backdrop, we can expect that Indignation, taking its title into consideration, will not be the touching film so many movies within its category prefer to characterize themselves as. It is a film of repression, religious hypocrisy, and a changing America, and never do those ferocious topics let up in their output.
Indignation stars an exceptional Logan Lerman as Marcus Messner, the nineteen-year-old son of a kosher butcher (Danny Burstein) who transfers from his Newark home’s Robert Treat College to the prestigious Winesburg College in Ohio after receiving a sizable scholarship. The college doesn’t much seem to be right for him — other Jewish students are mostly cast aside as a token demographic and graduation requires that students regularly attend mass — but he, wanting to escape the oppressions of home, takes the opportunity and runs with it.
Though he’s always taken immense pride in his academic record, with A’s coming easily and dependably, his attention, shortly after arriving on the college’s handsome grounds, immediately shifts toward Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful and brainy blonde with a dark past, and toward his volatile dean (Tracy Letts), who, being the man of his times that he is, evidently resents the way Marcus refuses to let his intellectual ideas conform to those that season the status quo. Through Olivia does Marcus experience his sexual awakening, and through the dean does Marcus realize just how crucial his scholarly beliefs are in making him the burgeoning young man that he is.
But because nothing about Indignation is ever easy — nearly every one of its cinematic characteristics proves to be sharply defiant (unlike the majority of films set in the 1950s, it only sees the ugliness of the decade in which it takes place) — tragedy always seems to be on the verge of erupting. Its leading pair, both of whom play characters too individualistic to fit in well with the cultural zeitgeist of the period, are doomed merely because they cannot comfortably accommodate to the expectations the world has of them. Marcus is fit with a case of genius that can be dangerous if his rage leaps to powerful enough levels, and Olivia is a classic example of the person who knows themselves, who is dazzlingly bright, and who doesn’t much care about the objections of their peers but cannot control the psychological and emotional downward spirals that affect them.
For all its sagacity, though, Indignation is ultimately the sort of feature impeccably shot, wonderfully acted, smartly written, and sturdily directed and still has a hard time moving us. Perhaps it’s the result of its inner-workings being so incendiary while its sheen stays glossy and disconcertingly picturesque. There’s a strange disconnect between it and us that causes one to wonder why certain areas got so lost in cinematic translation.
But Indignation’s unparalleled performances, with the film’s painful messages tightly in tow, make it, at the very least, cerebrally stimulating enough to provoke even when its emotional faucets struggle to drip. Being such a canny piece of filmmaking — the film additionally acts as the directorial debut of acclaimed screenwriter James Schamus — it’s almost possible to leave it at that. B