Director James Schamus /2016
James Schamus has plenty of experiencing as a writer and a producer, working extensively with director Ang Lee to produce and/or write screenplays for such films as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Hulk, and Brokeback Mountain. Adapting Phillip Roth’s novel, James Schamus has chosen Indignation as his feature film debut as a director.
The film follows Marcus (Logan Lerman), a young Jewish boy from New Jersey who is the son of a butcher. Unlike many of his friends who are being shipped off to fight in Korea in the early 1950’s, Marcus has earned a scholarship to a small private Christian college in Ohio. With his parents becoming more and more unbearable as they deal with empty nest syndrome, weeks before Marcus even leaves home, Marcus is all too ready for moving day to come. He makes his way to Ohio, ready to strike out on his own, in his quest to be a lawyer.
The film takes a fly on the wall approach to Marcus’ experiences, not really choosing sides as Marcus encounters minor annoyances along the way. Being put with some of the only other Jews on campus as roommates, which is meant to make him feel more comfortable but only makes him feel more isolated, is the first annoyance he has. He also strongly disagrees with the requirement to attend chapel services a couple of times each week, and so many before graduation, when Marcus identifies as an atheist despite his Jewish cultural identity.
Despite these minor bumps in the road, Marcus does meet a girl. Her name is Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) and she is beautiful. The kind of beautiful Marcus doesn’t believe he has a chance with, but to his surprise, she says yes. Never one to date in high school due to focusing on his studies to get out of New Jersey, this is all new to Marcus. He is hooked, and confused by this girl who performed fellatio on him without warning. This is the 1950’s and girls like that are thought of in all kind of ways that aren’t kind. But he likes this girl. He is bothered by why she did it, and it only adds to the other problems he has been experiencing, especially when a conflict with his roommates boil over and he requests a new room, leading to a showdown with the school’s dean of students.
Much of the humor of the film takes place in 2 main interactions Marcus has with Dean Caulwell (Tracy Letts) who is much smarter than Marcus gives him credit for. It turns out that Marcus has a superiority complex and is really an angry young man underneath his polished exterior. One of these incidents ends with a trip to the hospital, a visit from his mother, and it all comes to a head with his relationship with Olivia.
Indignation is defined as anger or annoyance that is triggered by what is perceived as unfair treatment. This is Marcus to a ‘T’. While it is the 1950’s, this is typically a charge lobbed at today’s millennial generation. They are given too much, are entitled, and feign moral outrage for things they haven’t really worked for to begin with. Whether this sweeping stereotype is accurate or not, it is clear that Marcus is meant to represent this very modern mindset despite the setting being from the stereo-typically “square” decade that served as the impetus for the sexual revolution that would explode in the midst of Vietnam just a mere 12-15 years later.
One problem that exists with this film is the lack of empathy we ever truly feel for Marcus. The story is told from his perspective, yet he is very much an unlikable person. The story makes no attempt to cover that up, either. We laugh at him, more than with him. I also had a very uneasy feeling watching the character of Olivia. She is so beautiful, smart, and funny on the outside, yet inside she is crumbling. Her unsolicited need to act out sexually, her attempts at suicide, and her fragile emotional state, coupled with the fact that she is wasting her best qualities trying to love a person like Marcus is all the more tragic.
James Schamus gets the look of the film, as well as the feel of it, right for the story he is trying to tell. The camera slides effortlessly in the midst of the scenes that allows the sharp dialogue and strong acting to shine through, even though the story is ultimately a tragic commentary on the dangers of anger and how each decision we make daily has ramifications that may lead to our own demise.
Indignation will not find a large audience, outside fans of the novel, but it is a strong, and well-made film for those who can find it. Ultimately, it is the unsympathetic nature of the protagonist that will keep people away. Not that he isn’t portrayed well by Logan Lerman, but that he is meant to be a cautionary tale that keeps him at arms length from the audience’s affection. So often, our own destruction can come from the inaccurate perception we hold of our own reality. This film is a testament to a truth we would be wise to remember.