FILM REVIEW: INDIGNATION (2016) JAMES SCHAMUS
By Belle McIntyre
Based on the penultimate novel of Phillip Roth and based in familiar territory for him, we are launched into a working class neighborhood in Newark, N.J. in 1951 and introduced to the Messner family. They are solid members of the community and owners of the only Kosher butcher shop where the wife and son both help out in the store and everyone seems to know everything about everyone. Marcus, their much-coddled 18-year old is an ideal son. He stays out of trouble, gets along well with his parents, is polite and respectful, gets excellent grades and is smart enough to have gotten a scholarship to a college in Winesburg College in Ohio (a not so veiled reference to Thornton Wilder’s Winesburg, Ohio).
Yet there is an underlying anxiety which seems to be subtly animating everyone in the community and that is the Korean War. Marcus has gotten a deferral as a result of his scholarship. But one of his good friends has just been killed in the war. That is a cloud that hangs over the young men as well as their parents. As the time nears for Marcus to leave his father becomes increasingly controlling and overbearing. As Marcus appears to be totally acquiescent the behavior seems completely misplaced.
The college is very conservative and there are so few Jews that nearly all of them are in the only Jewish fraternity on campus. Marcus has been placed with the only two Jews not in a fraternity. They are contrarians who have chosen to not join and Marcus is of the same mind as he is an atheist. He believes in the philosopher/ political activist/ polymath/Nobel Prize Laureate, Bertrand Russell. Marcus is a loner and a scholar, who does not care to socialize. He is also a virgin.
When the beautiful, blond, sophisticated Olivia Hutton takes notice of him and begins to toy with him, Marcus is so dazzled he loses his equilibrium. That she comes from a very wealthy WASP family and has transferred from Wellesley puts him in way out of his depth. If this sounds like a Woody Allen plot about to unspool, rest assured it is emphatically not. This story is more about things that don’t happen. The dean of students (Tracy Letts), a pompous, self-righteous prig puts pressure on Marcus to conform socially which finally triggers Marcus’ inner rebel. The encounters with the dean are intense but never explosive and make it clear that Marcus would be a brilliant lawyer, which is his goal.
The language is revealing and to the point. The characters are so carefully crafted that they never feel like stereotypes. The dialogue never lapses into schtik or scenerychewing. In fact, the performances are so nuanced that it never seems as if anyone is acting. Logan Lerman as Marcus is sweetly believable as an earnest, naive idealist learning the ways of the world. Sara Gadon as the world-weary beautiful Olivia Hutton, who entrances Marcus is so vulnerable and wounded that we have only empathy for her, even as Mrs. Messner (Linda Edmonds) sees her potential for causing serious damage and warns him off her.
The way that things devolve into tragedy seem so completely unfair as if fate has just decided to intervene out of the blue. And yet there are choices which create a thread of causality which no one could have predicted. It makes the overarching anxiety of the father seem prescient. And it is devastating. It is absolutely one of the most beautifully written, acted, and directed films I have seen in quite some time.
© Belle McIntyre