Marcus Messer, the lead character of Indignation, the new film adaptation of the Philip Roth novel from writer/director James Schamus, is a young man out of time. Polite, charming in his own way and a dedicated straight A student coddled by his overprotective Jewish parents, Marcus is sent to college in Ohio as a means to avoid being drafted into the Korean War, a conflict that has claimed the lives of many of his peers and cousins in his neighborhood. Marcus is too good a boy to go to war, too bright with too much potential to risk dying before he reaches his twenties. His life in Newark, New Jersey in 1951 is one defined by obedience and repression, with Marcus working alongside his father in a kosher butcherie, counting the days until he escapes the influence of his increasingly paranoid and overbearing father, a man deeply wounded by watching the sons of friends and acquaintances buried by their grieving parents. It is a cancerous environment for Marcus, making his move to the secluded Winesburg College an opportunity to start his life anew.
Things should be taking a turn for the better for young Mr. Messer (Logan Lerman), but the realities of Winesburg prove just as challenging as his deflating home life. Assigned to a triple with two upperclassmen (Ben Rosenfeld and Philip Ettinger), the only other Jews living on campus not part of the Jewish fraternity, Marcus bristles as the expectation for all students to attend chapel services overseen by Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) in order to graduate. Beneath the surface of this sheltered boy beats the heart of a fierce intellectual, an atheist living in a time fearful of Godless Communists liberated by his newfound freedom away from home and unafraid to speak his mind inside the classroom and out. He is, however, still warring with the social repression instilled in him his whole life of valuing studies over all else, and when a brash and alluring young woman named Olivia (Sarah Gadon) catches his eye and shows an interest in him far exceeding the levels of decorum to which he is accustomed, his life is thrown into further turmoil. Marcus simply cannot find a foothold in the early 1950s.
It is clearly a frustrating experience for Marcus, a society seemingly designed to stymie him at every turn, his only escape from dying alone in Korea lying in an oppressive higher learning institution far more interested in controlling the impropriety of its students than teaching them. Thus the title of the film is brought into sharp relief. Marcus has spent his life beset upon by authority, and a person can only take so much before he breaks or fights back. This tendency plays out in a show stopping confrontation with Dean Caudwell in the second act, a argument as chess game between two decidedly stubborn belligerents with the conviction of belief on their sides. Lerman and Letts are a delight to watch here, with Lerman embracing the titular indignation expertly to counteract Letts’ pitch perfect insidious puritanical moral superiority. It crackles with potential energy, Lerman’s seething anger pitched against Letts’ holier-than-thou smarm. The script takes the spotlight here, wasting nary a word, using their opinions on mathematician/philosopher Bertrand Russell underwrite how they see the world (Marcus focuses on his beliefs, the Dean on his multiple spouses). The acidity with which Marcus calls him sir is icing on the cake.
And just as well as Marcus’ arguments with Dean Caudwell serve to inform the whole of his battles with societal oppression in the face of burgeoning intellectualism, his relationship with Olivia sets up a glass to his fractured family life. The way he blusters at the forward nature of her advances seems so counter to his progressive religious and academic ideals, an ambivalence that clearly weighs on him despite his best efforts. This aspect of Marcus’ life leans heavily on Olivia, and by extension Sarah Gadon, to delicately mine its complexity. Gadon has a difficult task, faced with slowly revealing her tragic background in a way that cannot feel manipulative or manufactured, internalizing it into her character’s personality. Too much tragedy and she would become a caricature, too little and the revelations about her past would feel hollow. Gadon is equal to her assignment; her character arc feels natural and not purely plot motivated. Their romance is thorny and multifaceted, a deep well of intrigue and a wonderful facet of Marcus’ story. Some might consider his romance with Olivia the dominant half of the film. Others could look to his clashes with the establishment and Dean Caudwell. The beauty of Indignation is they’re both right.
There are times Schamus’ script feels a bit too accelerated, with some of Marcus’ traits seeming to appear out of thin air. His relationship with his father gets a bit of a short shrift (an aspect of the story that gets more of a spotlight in the novel); the content is there, but it might not have the emotional heft it could given more time. But these are sacrifices that must be made to keep the running time on the happy side of two hours and the pacing from lagging. James Schamus has crafted an engrossing adaptation of Philip Roth’s explosive novel with remarkable performances from Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon and Tracy Letts, a haunting piano and string score from Jay Wadley (evoking Carter Burwell’s score from another recent 1950’s tale of societal repression, Carol) and cinematography from Christopher Blauvelt that is equal parts striking and subtle. Indignation may be Schamus’ first feature behind the director’s chair, but his years as a producer, screenwriter and co-President of Focus Features has made him more than prepared for the task. Indignation is the sort of film with virtues that creep into the brain without announcing themselves actively. It’s only days later when it’s still there, still at the forefront of the mind, that its true quality sinks in.