REVIEW: Indignation [2016]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 110 minutes | Release Date: July 29th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Roadside Attractions / Summit Entertainment
Director(s): James Schamus
Writer(s): James Schamus / Philip Roth (novel)

“You be greater than your feelings.”

If I’ve seen a bleaker, more pessimistic film in the past ten years than Indignation I find myself absolutely stumped trying to think of it. Adapted from Philip Roth‘s 2008 novel by writer/director James Schamus, this look at a Korean War-era America full of fear, anxiety, sexual repression, and attempted solace through religion supplies a gut-punch at every turn in plot. There’s no hope to be found when the one possible glimmer of love that’s provided is riddled with constant missteps and tragic circumstances prevailing where happy endings usually reside. The title doesn’t solely concern the chip on lead Marcus Messner’s (Logan Lerman) shoulder allowing him to disrespect peers and adults alike while hiding behind an elitist attitude of intellectual superiority either. It also describes the country at-large.

Bookended by glimpses of an as yet unknown time and reality with an anonymous elderly woman staring at the flower vases printed on her retirement home’s walls leading into a scene of war with bayonets, gunfire, and death that comes too soon, we’re left unsure about whether what’s seen is present-day or white-lit flashback. United States’ morale is crumbling beneath the weight of so many fallen soldiers that these moments could depict anyone. The easiest explanation for the latter is that it showcases a classmate of Marcus for which we attend a funeral’s aftermath populated by surprisingly dry eyes resigned to their unavoidable reality. Parents really have two things to pray for: either that their son is found medically unfit to fight or blessed with a college scholarship.

The Messners (Danny Burstein‘s Max and Linda Emond‘s Esther) are lucky because Marcus has top marks and a place at Winesburg College come fall. But knowing he’s safe from the frontlines only offers so much relief considering the boy is still leaving New Jersey for Ohio. His mother takes it as any would, his father much worse. Max’s worry is so high that you cannot imagine how the draft would have affected him if things went differently. It’s like the butcher cracked, his neighbors and friends’ nightmares too impossible to handle. The simple fact he doesn’t need to fear Marcus’ destination becomes the reason he does. Unable to accept it as a show of love, however, the boy sees it as an affront to years of hard work.

And you almost can’t blame the boy. Here he’s received straight A’s throughout his education while also working at the butcher shop and captaining both the debate and baseball teams yet his father all of a sudden cannot trust his judgment. He’s been the consummate son and it feels for naught—where is the leeway he has earned? The thought is that removing himself from the situation will turn things around. At college he will be surrounded by like-minded kids his age and teachers whose goal is to ensure he learns. So what if everyone wants him to have a social life and friends. That’s not why he’s here. But should it be? Especially at a time like this, shouldn’t he be thinking about community above personal gain?

It’s a fine line because on paper Marcus’ actions are unquestionably pure, innocent even as a new world opens up. He tries to be accessible to roommates Bertram (Ben Rosenfeld) and Ron (Philip Ettinger), but his temper makes it difficult. He wants to know Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), but her emotional and psychological state renders it almost impossible if for no reason other than his inability to understand her. This is a crucial discovery because we soon find his ignorance to social cues and perception to be his greatest failing. Without a philosopher’s text to study, memorize, and wield opposite a willing party to agree or refute positions, he’s at an absolute loss. Personal frustration leads to outward frustration until he simply extricates himself from the scenario altogether.

The rules he lived by aren’t enforced here, Ohio proving as strange a land as Korea to those unlucky soldiers sent away. Whereas youth afforded success by studying hard and doing the work, adulthood demands more. He resents being treated as a child because he no longer believes he is one. Marcus pushes back against his father’s love, guilts his mother into ignoring her lack of it, and refuses to allow Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) the same grasp on his own positions as he has on his. This newcomer feels entitled to a life others are dying to provide him and his fear of squandering it puts him on a path to do exactly that. Because it’s not actually a debate that he wants, he craves bring right.

Lerman is masterful in the role, his self-absorption all-consuming. He doesn’t seek conversation because he dismisses feedback as inconsequential when it arrives. He doesn’t worry about the feelings of others and is ruled by a temper he doesn’t believe he possesses. His Marcus has been given a gift he’s unprepared to operate: freedom. He’s relentless, egotistical, and to a point completely uncaring until the wellbeing of another affects his own. He’s willing to let Olivia’s existence flitter away—his lack of compassion and the era’s spurning of pleasure making a willing sexual act a conundrum needing reason beyond attraction and lust—until she rebukes him. This is a young man who’s played with fire his whole life but only now knows what it feels like to be burned.

In Marcus’ mind the world is encroaching on him. It’s attacking him on all fronts in an attempt to sidetrack his goals—goals that hinder his evolution as a human being. His interactions always end one of two ways: acquiescence or separation. Either the other party agrees with his train of thought or they storm off to prove they lack the intellectual chops to spar. But now it’s he who is forced to go because he will not compromise. A fraternity wants to recruit him and he walks away from their unwavering kindness. A woman wants to be with him and he runs from her affection. A role model seeks to return verbal volleys with a smile and receives seething anger at his gall in response.

It’s not with tail between legs that Marcus finally revisits them—it’s need instead. He seeks to use them, their resistance inevitably sending him into a spiral. Indignation becomes a cautionary tale of greed and vanity despite its subject not necessarily deserving such specific labels. He simply cannot let go of the image he has cultivated for himself, a future that doesn’t even gel with his vivid dreams. Marcus seeks escape from his past only to become trapped within himself while those he cares for are lost via suffering he unwittingly ignites. Life isn’t a solitary experience; it doesn’t play favorites. To be indignant is to ultimately refuse healthy assistance, friendship, and love. Without those things you become stripped bare, helpless to avoid the all-consuming darkness approaching fast.

[1] Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in INDIGNATION. Photo credit: Alison Cohen Rosa
[2] Tracy Letts in INDIGNATION. Photo credit: Alison Cohen Rosa
[3] Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman in INDIGNATION. Photo credit: Alison Cohen Rosa

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