Every now and then I leave a press screening unsure of what I thought about the film I had just seen. It’s evident right away whether I liked it or not but there are usually pieces of the film that I feel slightly unsure of and things I need to mull over, much, I’m sure, to the chagrin of whoever is taking critic notes at the time. This has to be a sort of compliment to the filmmaker, especially on the movies I’m thinking positively about, being that this indecisiveness is, more often than not, due to the complexity of the story I had just witnessed. This is definitely true when it comes to the new drama Indignation, the debut film from writer James Schamus. Even now as I write this, I’m still wrestling with my feelings about it.
As a writer, James Schamus is a man who has paid his dues. For a long time, he has written movie after movie for director Ang Lee, including Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the ill-advised Hulk film as well. It appears that the long-time collaboration had some pay off as Schamus seems to have made the transition to behind the camera pretty seamlessly, as Indignation will most likely go down as one of the more notable dramas of 2016 and a directorial debut that looks more polished than most first timers do. That said, the three-time Academy Award nominee isn’t your typical writer-director transition.
The film, based on a 2008 novel from author Philip Roth, takes place in 1951 and follows Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a Jewish student working at his father’s butcher shop in Newark, New Jersey. In a time where many young men are being drafted into the army to go fight in Korea, Marcus finds himself in the good position of getting accepted to a small college in Ohio. Seeing it as an escape from his overbearingly harsh father, Marcus counts down the days until his freedom from the constant berating and comparisons to never do wells in the neighborhood. The chance to further his studies in a new town and state represents an opportunity for Marcus to stand on his own as a man.
Coming from a devout Jewish family, it’s interesting to note that Marcus is an atheist, which makes things awkward with his family and their acquaintances and, even more so, when it comes to just interacting with people, Marcus is very business-like with everyone he comes into contact with until he lays eyes on Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) while he’s working his campus job at the library. Quickly, he musters up the courage to ask her out on a date, which she accepts without much problem. Marcus’s awkwardness continues during their first date but there is definitely a connection between the two. This is all thrown into question when Olivia performs oral sex on Marcus at the end of the date, putting Marcus into a quandary over how he felt about it and who he is starting a relationship with.
Logan Lerman turns in the greatest performance of his career so far, nudging aside the solid work in the World War II film, Fury. The only people even slightly privy to what Marcus’s true thoughts are is the audience and even then it’s only a small amount. There’s his need to almost be a solitary person left to his own devices that is obviously fueled by how intrusive his father is into his life. This becomes glaringly obvious when the leader of the campus’s Jewish fraternity comes to try to recruit Marcus as a pledge to which he immediately and very politely declines the offer. Within Marcus’s withdrawn and very business cordial attitude, Lerman smolders before a pivotal verbal battle with the college’s dean, which hits pretty big heights. Besides his own father, this seems to be the only times where Marcus strikes back in a righteous and justified way.
The always beautiful Sarah Gadon burns up the screen with every gorgeous shot that Schamus and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt frame her in. With her emergence into the film, reading casually in the library with one leg draped over the chair swinging back and forth, we are immediately drawn into the allure and lusting for Olivia Hutton. She’s the quintessential dream girl, blonde with eyes that capture you, and we want to know more about her. This is where we see bruises in the fruit, as she is very fleeting in the information she gives Marcus but it doesn’t serve to damage her, just make her more alluring in the long run. Perhaps if Marcus had been a different and more open, inviting individual the story might have gone differently; but he was unsure of how to channel his own feelings about his sexual awakening, instead opting to put his issues solely on Olivia.
Where I start to have my indecision is with the whole ending of the film which comes off as cold and harsh, especially after we had seen at least a little promise in the changes Marcus goes through. It feels almost obvious that he has deep feelings for Olivia Hutton that go beyond a wanton lust but, by the end, he is still unable to flesh them out to change anything. I think that for this lead character to be so static in this sense made me feel like there wasn’t enough of a finish to this movie to be satisfying. While the whole exit of the story seemed like it was meant to be an almost Shakespearian tragedy, I felt no poetic insight in its delivery and felt like it was a bit of a dead end. Even still, James Schamus has struck out on his own in a solid piece of cinema and will quickly find himself on the list on noteworthy filmmakers this year. I give Indignation a three and a half out of five.