I read and loved Philip Roth’s Indignation, but never imagined a film could be made out of it. The book is narrated by Marcus Messner, who is, well, indignant but also borderline insane. There isn’t a lot of plot to the book, and it’s almost all talk.
But writer-director James Schamus chucked a lot of the filmmaking “rules” and has made a fine film. Set in 1951, it details Messner’s leaving his family in Newark, where his father has set him crazy with over-protecting him (young men in the neighborhood are coming back in body bags from Korea) and goes to bucolic Winesburg College in Ohio.
Messner is Jewish, and is roomed with two other Jews. He refuses to join a Jewish fraternity, as he just wants to concentrate on his studies. He is attracted to a young blonde woman in his history class, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), and one of Roth’s tropes, defined on Seinfeld as “Shiksa-peal” rears its head. They go out on a date, and while it appears to end very well for Messner (he gets an unsolicited blowjob) in fact this act of goodwill will lead to a downward spiral for both characters.
As many critics have pointed out, Indignation is a film that puts character, not plot, first. Logan Lerman, an actor I guess I have seen in one of the Percy Jackson films, is terrific as a young man who is haunted not so much by demons but by his own notions of superiority. Winesburg (certainly named after Sherwood Anderson’s book Winesburg, Ohio) has compulsory chapel, and Lerman, being both Jewish and an atheist, resents having to go. He lays this out in a fantastic scene with the Dean (Tracy Letts) which is very long (some critics note it is eighteen minutes) and brings up Bertrand Russell. If only for this scene, which is an antidote to every lousy summer blockbuster we’ve had this year, Indignation deserves applause.
There is also another great scene with Linda Emond as Lerman’s mother. She has noticed the scar on Gadon’s wrist, and implores her son to give her up. She is not old world–she tells him she would be fine with him marrying a gentile, but doesn’t want that kind of stain to inflict itself on him.
Given it’s release date, I don’t expect Indignation to get any awards love, but Letts, also the author of August: Osage County, who perfectly plays a condescending blowhard, deserves nominations, as does the script by Schamus. It’s thrilling to watch a film that actually assumes intelligence and literacy from its audience.