Based on the novel by Philip Roth and Written and Directed by James Schamus, Indignation is a period drama with some very heavy subject matter. Does it overcome its serious nature enough to entertain?
It is 1951. Marcus (Logan Lerman) is heading off to a small college in Ohio from his home in New Jersey on a scholarship from his temple. His father (Danny Burstein) is a butcher and has begun to worry incessantly about Marcus and his future, driving both Marcus and his mother (Linda Emond) up the wall. Marcus is luckier than other boys his age, though. Most of them are off to Korea to fight in the war. When Marcus arrives at Winesburg College, he finds that he is one of the few Jewish students there, but this is not the reason why he feels alienated from the other students. Marcus has a plan: devote all his time to his studies and then move onto law school. That plan hits a snag when he meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a girl with a reputation, but one who is definitely more than she appears or is rumored to be. Marcus’ general antisocial behavior and unwillingness to conform brings him into conflict with Dean Cauldwell (Tracy Letts) and suddenly Marcus finds his college career in jeopardy, all for being different.
Like all great dramas, there is plenty of conflict in Indignation. Marcus and Olivia are characters ahead of their time, which makes some of the conflict frustrating for the viewer. Approaching the film from a modern perspective, it becomes maddening to watch how their independence is stifled by those in power and how they struggle against outdated social norms. However, that’s what makes the film a great drama. That’s not to say that Marcus is completely enlightened. He’s quite repressed sexually, as was the norm for people in the 1950s, but he does have a strong sense of self, which clashes with the Dean’s ideas of what’s right at a time when everyone was trying to be just like everybody else. Olivia’s problems come from the fact that she’s misunderstood in general, but also she’s a woman in the ‘50s and refuses to fit into a preconceived mold. The best scene in the film is one that’s teased in the trailer between Marcus and the Dean. The scene is quite long, but the verbal sparring between the two is breathtaking. Just a fantastically written scene that is acted to perfection. My only quibble with the film is that while there are some lighter moments, it’s pretty much a dour affair—it is called Indignation, after all. Also, without spoiling anything, don’t come in expecting a sunny ending either.
The acting work is superb. Lerman has impressed in several films already, but Indignation is a real star-making performance for him. He carries the film and does a great job with the complicated dialogue and emotions. I liked him quite a lot in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but he really ups his game here. Gadon is also excellent as Olivia. She presents herself as a prim and proper girl, but she is really the first shot in the culture war and sexual revolution that broke out in the 1960s. Like Marcus’ independent streak, she is about a decade early with her attitudes. Letts is amazing as Dean Cauldwell and while he is a formidable antagonist for Marcus, you feel that on some level he actually has the boy’s best interests in mind, but it’s tough to see when he’s wrapped up in so much moral superiority. Burstein and Emond also do great work here as Marcus’ parents. Emond especially shares a difficult scene with Lerman late in the film and it is absolutely heartbreaking.
If you’re a fan of literary period dramas, you’ll enjoy Indignation. It is a very faithful adaptation of Roth’s novel and features some stellar performances from its supremely talented cast. It’s not an exciting film and is quite a slow burn, but it is worth it for the artistry on display.