Indignation Review

Posted: February 29, 2016 in 2016 Berlinale, Drama, Reviews
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IndignationWith the 2015 Oscar season and show mercifully behind us, now seems an appropriate time to consider the film Indignation, which had its premiere at Sundance in January and then screened in the loaded Panorama section of the Berlinale Film Festival in February. It says here that with the proper handling and a fair bit of luck, Indignation could be next year’s Brooklyn – a “small” film that goes big and ends up with a Best Picture nomination. Both films are set in the United States in the early 1950’s; both have roots in the greater New York City area. But whereas Brooklyn tells the tale of the wonderful things that happen when a young Irish immigrant woman arrives, Indignation is the tragic story of what occurs when an unprepared young Jewish man leaves.

First-time director James Schamus is better known as a producer and writer, primarily through his involvement in Ang Le projects including Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Hulk. Ironically, Schamus served as the executive producer for Junction 48, the film that beat Indignation for the Panorama Audience Award in Berlin. For his maiden effort in the chair, Schamus adapted the 2008 Philip Roth novel, the 29th book penned by that literary force and the sixth one made into a film. Indignation proves two things: (1) Schamus knows what he’s doing behind the keyboard and behind the camera, and (2) in the right hands, Roth remains relevant in today’s cinema.

Like a Shakespearean tragedy, the movie reveals the inevitable fall of the hero from the opening scene as well as the flaw that will lead to his undoing. Arrogant, contemptuous anger – otherwise known as indignation – is elevated to the level of a deadly sin. Our narrator recounts the events from the grave a la Kevin Spacey in American Beauty, but we do not feel the full force of the potential terribleness of wrongheaded, youthful mistakes until the final shot of the film. Indignation unfolds at a deliberate pace, building with every step to a shattering climax. It’s not only that the boy who thinks he knows everything will never become a man who accepts that others can know best. He is also robbed of the opportunity to share the wisdom that comes too late.

Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, the son of a kosher butcher from Newark, whose need to get away from his suddenly overprotective father leads him to a tiny goy college in Ohio. America in 1951 offered young men a simple choice: get drafted and go to Korea or get to college and stay there. Winesburg College is the odd outpost that Marcus stakes his future on, a school where chapel is a mandatory course and Jewish students not in the one Jewish fraternity are housed together – all three of them.

Enter Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). Olivia is the archetype that Roth has never been able to get beyond, the adolescent Jewish boy’s fantasy of the blonde shiksa who dispenses hand jobs, blow jobs, and life lessons. The character is introduced in a clumsy fashion, and full credit goes to Gadon for rescuing Olivia from stereotype. She has a singular beauty and unique talent on display for showing how a young woman’s confidence can mask great personal demons. Marcus has much to learn from Olivia, but Interpersonal Relationships 101 is the course that this college kid fails.

The nexus for his failure is his interaction with Winesburg College’s Dean of Men, Dean Caudwell. The two scenes with Marcus and Caudwell in the Dean’s office are the spine of the story. The verbal jousting is ferocious and fascinating, a power struggle laid bare by blunt force intensity. Tracy Letts is brilliant as Caudwell, his every line delivered with perfect emphasis, diction, and tonal control. His performance is so mesmerizing that a viewer can not even form a value judgment of the character. He is every overbearing authority figure we ever encountered, and we marvel at Marcus for standing up to him, even while fearing the inevitable outcome of this match.

The brilliance of the cast is not limited to Gadon, Letts, and Lerman. Marcus’ parents (Danny Bursting and Linda Emond) are stellar, especially Emond in a scene in which she wrests a Faustian bargain from her son. His college roommates are equally solid as is the president of the Jewish fraternity (Pico Alexander) who serves as the counterpoint for Marcus, the what-might-have-been.

What’s in the immediate future for Indignation is not clear. Perhaps the fates will decree that this tragic story enjoys a happy ending with a robust distribution deal and a bushel of well-deserved award nominations.

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