indignation

reviewed by samantha mooney

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Long-time screenwriter James Schamus (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain) has cultivated an incredible career. He is most notable for his work with director Ang Lee, but also known for his championing of foreign and independent film as CEO of Focus Features, an American film production and distribution company (In Bruges, The Motorcycle Diaries, Kubo and the Two Strings). After a long career of writing and producing some of the most stylish and elegant films of the past twenty years, Schamus makes his directorial debut with an adaption of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, Indignation, a personal and poignant film consumed by mortality and its inevitability. The opening of the film begins with a voice over informing the audience of the protagonist’s death:“It’s important to understand about dying that even though, in general, you don’t have a personal choice in the matter, there are reasons you die, there are causes.”

Marcus Messner (played by Logan Lerman) is a fascinating character who resists easy categorisation.  A rebel in his own intellectual way, he is a young man of the 1950’s who has escaped being drafted into the Korean War. Instead, he has been awarded a scholarship to attend Winesburg College in Ohio, with the intention of becoming a lawyer. Moving out of his very Jewish household (he is the son of a kosher butcher), Marcus leaves behind his parents Max and Esther (played superbly by Danny Burnstein and Linda Emond). His father’s paranoia and compulsive worrying over his son have become overbearing, and a chance to escape to Ohio appeals to Marcus. However, upon arrival Marcus discovers that Winesburg is a Catholic school which requires a dedicated attendance to sermons each week. He may have been raised Jewish, but Marcus is an ardent atheist. Along with his despondency at how he is being taught, and his relationship with his roommates, his time at Winesburg seems bleak, until he experiences his first sexual encounter with Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).

Poised and beautiful, she informs him that she is “deeply damaged” and shows him her attempted suicide scars. Fascinated by the mystery around Olivia, his inability to process her forwardness sets into motion a series of events. As his roomates inform him, she has a “reputation”. Marcus, defending the choices of his crush, requests to move rooms. He is then introduced to the college Dean Caudwell, (played brilliantly by the playwright and actor Tracy Letts) in the film’s most captivating scene, where the two characters go head to head debating ethics, politics, religion and everything in between, for a full fifteen minutes.  It is comical, poignant and engaging, a memorable moment of cinema involving a single setting and the discussion of ideas and philosophies in an outspoken manner.

Following this encounter we see the full extent of Marcus' indignation. The sentiment reiterated by his father, “The tiniest mistake can have consequences,” fails to divert Marcus from the path he is on. James Schamus shows just how easily life can unravel and how arbitrary actions can lead to an unfair fate. This interplay of action and consequence is contemplated in Marcus’ sporadic voice over. In the long takes and medium shots captured by cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt, the actors are given space to move freely within the frame which adds to our apprehension of the exploration of the characters and their ideals throughout the film.

Indignation is a film which builds on the coming-of-age tale, but it unfolds into something much more meditative: a melancholic contemplation on events and causality. It never loses touch with the anxieties of the times, caused by cultural repression. Indignation is a beautifully accomplished film, and is a promising directorial debut from James Schamus. It will be very interesting to see the heights Schamus will reach in his new role.