On the surface, Indignation looks like a stuffy, visually drab drama with very little in the way of narrative power or intrigue. I honestly hadn't heard a whole lot about the film coming out of Sundance and the trailer didn't wow me in any significant way. But as the adaptation of Philip Roth's novel moved closer to its release, there seemed to be a lot of critical attention shifting towards it from the industry. Indignation ended up being the odd film with little festival buzz, but a breakout run during its theatrical release. With great reviews and a stellar cast led by Logan Lerman, one of my favorite young actors, I decided that this film was worth a look. And in an inconsistent summer, once again, I discovered one of the year's best films at my local arthouse theater.
Indignation is one of the most surprising films to hit theaters in 2016, a mature, thoughtful, and heartbreaking drama that comes together in such a beautiful manner. It's an old-fashioned drama, but its themes, message, and characters are so potent and crushingly realistic that any of the carefully-designed charm is washed away. Roth's story, brought to the screen by director James Schamus, is near-perfect in so many ways, simply because it does so much with a basic concept. Indignation is a scathing indictment of 1950s culture and religion, a compelling character study of two broken individuals, and a haunting look at a crumbling relationship. The settings are so rich, the story is so pointed, the dialogue is crisp and biting, and the performances are magnificent. Indignation is the real deal.
Set in the early 1950s at the dawn of the Korean War, Indignation follows Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a brilliant young Jewish teen who will soon be heading off to a college in Ohio. Marcus received a scholarship from his temple, and even though his parents don't want him to join the war, they're still struggling to let go for his college experience (especially his father, played by Danny Burstein). Nonetheless, despite their hesitation, Marcus heads off to school. He's paired with two other Jewish roommates who despise him (mostly because they were forced to stay in a less desirable dorm), and even though he has an offer to join the campus' Jewish fraternity, Marcus declines, preferring to handle things by himself. Marcus spends most of his time alone, but soon finds himself smitten by Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful girl with a dark past of her own. Confrontational and focused on his own personal view of the world, Marcus finds himself in conflict with the overbearing dean (Tracy Letts), his peers, and even his parents as the social constraints of the era comes crashing down on him.
Logan Lerman burst onto the scene with the Percy Jackson films, but with his roles in Fury and Perks of Being a Wallflower in recent years, the 24-year old actor has solidified himself as an extremely talented star. While Indignation has been labeled as a breakthrough for Lerman by some (it's a prominent quote in the ads), for me, this was just further proof that he's the real deal. Lerman's Marcus is both combative and contemplative, driven by a steely resolve and a quiet thoughtfulness. He isn't always the easiest to like, but it's a testament to Lerman's performance that I felt for him throughout the entire film. Sarah Gadon is equally terrific as the damaged Olivia, a gorgeous woman who alternates between talkative and pain-stricken. There's a chilling perfection to Gadon's performance, and while Indignation is Marcus' story, it works just as well as a spectacular deconstruction of the 1950's mythos of the "perfect woman."
Tracy Letts also shines as the domineering Dean Caudwell, who emerges as a stellar foil for Marcus. Caudwell is nice in that fake Southern way; he'll give you a glass of water and act like he cares about your life, but in reality, he's just here to look down on you and your choices as a human being. Caudwell is straight-up unlikable at most turns, and I'm really struggling to see any way that audience members could side with his condescending behavior. Danny Burstein and Linda Emond are exceptional as Marcus' parents, and I really enjoyed the way that director James Schamus created a three-dimensional relationship inside the family. Burstein is great at wearing his pain and anxiousness on his face, while there's a stone cold seriousness to Emond that contrasts the pair well. Other standouts among the cast include Pico Alexander as the leader of the fraternal council and Ben Rosenfield as a Shakespeare-quoting arts expert.
Nobody knows how Indignation will play during this Oscar season (it'll be competing with American Pastoral, Ewan McGregor's adaptation of another Philip Roth novel), but if there's one category that it should be a shoo-in for, it's Best Adapted Screenplay. This is such an impeccably written and staged movie, with dialogue that crackles and bursts with cinematic gusto and energy. It reminded me of a good Aaron Sorkin film, especially last year's Steve Jobs, where the dialogue scenes felt like verbal wars. There's quite a good bit of rhetorical sparring in Indignation, which is overflowing with scenes that keep you hooked based solely on the words coming out of the mouths of the characters. The much-hyped centerpiece between Lerman's Marcus and Letts' Caudwell is as outstanding as you've heard, but that's not the only show-stopping moment of spoken warfare in this film. I'm not familiar with the source material, so I can't compare what's on screen with what's on the page. But nonetheless, I can say that James Schamus did an utterly stellar job bringing these characters to life.
Schamus was a popular indie producer and Hollywood executive before bringing his directorial debut to the big screen, and honestly, it's a shame that he waited this long. Indignation is the work of a filmmaker with a grand vision, someone with a precise taste for efficient pacing and immaculate period detail. It's certainly a slow burn, but as it builds to a fiery, emotional crescendo, Schamus picks up the pace and delivers something unforgettable. There's not a moment in this film that feels too sluggish or too frenetic- it's extraordinarily crafted for 110 minutes. While the work of Philip Roth is undoubtedly important to this film's success, it's abundantly obvious that Schamus has quite a bit to say about these themes as well. Indignation is packed with ideas about American disillusionment, the broken values of the 1950's, and the result of a sneering society led by people like Dean Caudwell. These resonate through every moment of the movie, and yes, it can get quite downbeat at times. It leads up to a point that will certainly divide audiences, but I found it to be a thrilling and heartbreaking finale.
Indignation is a somber and melancholy drama, one that deals with complex subject matter in a sensational and riveting way. Even though it's hitting theaters in late July/early August, it feels like a reminder that we're about to enter awards season, a time that will hopefully bring a rebirth for movies after a middling summer. Schamus' film is one of the best that I've seen in a while, driven by three powerhouse performances, remarkably powerful dialogue, and a conclusion that will endure in your mind for a long time. Audiences looking for an uplifting love story might want to head to another theater, but for any moviegoer hoping for a little more to chew on, Indignation should jump right to the top of your list.
THE FINAL GRADE: A (9/10)
Images courtesy of Roadside Attractions