A sense of dread hangs over Indignation, the first feature directed by James Schamus, former CEO of Focus Features. Schamus produced—and sometimes had a hand in writing—a litany of great films, working with Ang Lee on the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. His directorial debut, based on a 2008 Philip Roth novel, is exquisite to behold, carefully recreating its era (the action primarily takes place in 1951) and offering some pretty period costumes. But this is a bleak film, one whose undercurrent of morbidity stems any romanticization of the past. That ominousness can at times be suffocating, as the action barrels toward a conclusion it insists on foreshadowing. Light summer fare this is not.
The film’s more challenging and occasionally frustrating elements mirror those of its hero, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman). Marcus, the son of a Jewish butcher in drearily lit Newark, New Jersey, has avoided being shipped off to the Korean War by getting a scholarship to a liberal arts college in Ohio. An early punchline comes when Marcus is asked by the grieving mother of a classmate killed in combat how he’ll keep kosher in the midwestern state. It quickly becomes clear that Marcus is not especially concerned with avoiding treif as he digs into some escargot on his first date with the striking Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). A prickly figure who initially strives to keep to himself, Marcus can’t resist the starlet glamour of Olivia, and it’s through her that Marcus begins to shed his guarded armor, exposing a budding firebrand. He’s not a good Jewish boy trying to please his parents. He’s a fiercely independent atheist.
Olivia possesses a manic energy that instantly codes her as trouble. She’s got Donna Reed’s wardrobe and Tracy Flick’s cadence. Gadon is appropriately magnetic in this shiksa goddess role, but her performance is hampered by the nature of the part. The audience is only allowed to see Olivia through Marcus, and though she reveals to him that she attempted suicide in the past, he makes little effort to truly understand her, mostly regarding her as beautiful, intriguing, and very willing to service his penis. She gives him a blowjob on their first date, the significance of which he puzzles and agonizes over. Other acts follow. (Is this the hand job-iest movie of 2016? It is based on a Roth book.) While enjoying the pleasures she provides, Marcus refuses to acknowledge the full extent of Olivia’s pain, though she does admittedly conceal it from him. Thus, Gadon can’t betray much of the turmoil lurking under this young woman’s surface.
Every so often, we’re reminded that we’re witnessing Marcus’ telling of events, thanks to sporadic first-person narration that can feel out of context and awkward. But handing the movie over to the protagonist does have its benefits. Notably, it allows Lerman to deliver an exciting, detailed performance. His Marcus is brutally intelligent and yet still possesses the naiveté one might expect from a college freshman. The film’s centerpiece scene is a lengthy face-to-face between Marcus and the school’s Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Letts is solid, doing a variation on a familiar strict administrator, but the moment belongs to Lerman. It’s exhilarating to watch Marcus’ politeness slip away as he grapples with authoritarianism, his rage boils over as Caudwell interrogates his religious beliefs and personal life with an air of haughty amusement. The sequence is a masterful mix of performance and writing. It might work just as well on stage as it does on screen.
Lerman doesn’t entirely outshine the rest of the cast. Elsewhere, Linda Emond proves steely and heartbreaking as Marcus’ suffering mother, who is loyal to her son, and Ben Rosenfield is a hoot as Marcus’ obnoxious, Shakespeare-spewing roommate. But Indignation is at its best when Lerman and Schamus are working in tandem to build a portrait of this righteous and flawed young man. He’s a fascinating character who resists easy categorization, and worth spending two hours watching.