An oasis of sophisticated, literate drama in a summer movie season filled to the brim with empty-headed action movies, bombastic superhero franchises, ultra-raunchy comedies and animated children’s pictures, “Indignation” offers a timely rebuke to the idea that mature, intellectually provocative fare can be found only in the “awards conscious” weeks at year’s end. James Schamus’ elegant, thoughtful adaptation of Philip Roth’s novella is easily one of 2016’s best films.
Logan Lerman, continuing the transition to more mature roles he began with “Fury,” is Marcus Messner, the son of Newark butcher Max (Danny Burstein), in whose shop he works while finishing high school. It’s 1951, however, and Max, seeing so many of his son’s peers dying in Korea, becomes so obsessively concerned with Marcus’ safety that the ambitious boy decides to flee home, securing a scholarship at Winesburg, a small liberal arts college in Ohio. His mother Esther (Linda Emond) watches helplessly as Max’s impulse to control Marcus’ every move drives him away.
At Winesburg, Max secures a job in the college library and applies himself diligently to his studies, but the dorm accommodations are troublesome: he finds himself rooming with two upper-classmen who happen to be the only other Jewish students not affiliated with the Jewish fraternity headed by big man on campus Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), a relative of whom Max happens to know back home. Though one of them (Philip Ettinger) is uncommunicative but not unfriendly, the other, Flusser (Ben Rosenfield), is a voluble drama major whose antics drive Marcus crazy. Their attitudes toward him lead Marcus to arrange a room change to a dilapidated single that’s rarely been occupied.
His roommate problems, however, haven’t developed in isolation: they’re related to his attraction to Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful blonde co-ed whom he asks out on a date—at the end of which she spontaneously gets very intimate with him. Both entranced and puzzled by her action, Marcus is drawn into an entanglement that will have disastrous consequences for them both.
It’s the room change, though, that leads to a brilliantly executed sequence in which Marcus is summoned to the office of Winesburg’s powerful Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) for a talk that turns into part inquisition, part debate. In unashamedly elevated, even arch dialogue lifted directly from Roth, smug administrator and precocious student parry and thrust for some fifteen minutes, the dean probing for clues to the boy’s psychological makeup and Marcus replying with self-justifying excuses and complaints, most particularly about a requirement to attend regular assemblies in the Christian college’s chapel, despite his being a professed atheist (and acolyte of Bertrand Russell, who serves as the focus of some of the script’s most acerbic, and amusing, lines).
That extended scene, an extraordinary tour de force for both Lerman and Letts, will have a briefer counterpart between them later in the film, but that will be exceeded by those involving Marcus and Esther, who comes to Ohio after her son has fallen ill and has two intense conversations with him, the first about Max and the second regarding Olivia. Here Emond comes into her own, delivering a shattering portrait of a mother who will do anything to protect her child, and once again it’s to Lerman’s credit that he doesn’t wilt playing the long dialogue scenes with her, any more than he does in those with the equally formidable Letts.
Given the excellence of these powerful episodes, it’s unfortunate that the Marcus-Olivia scenes don’t achieve a similar degree of cinematic eloquence. Lerman and Gadon both play them with feeling, but here the literary affectations in the dialogue Schamus has derived from Roth are more pronounced, and the sense of artificiality becomes intrusive. It’s difficult to convey on film the sort of feverish, youthful infatuation Roth has created in any event—it’s a quality more easily captured on the page, where the interiority of the experience, told in first-person style by the besotted boy, takes an a hallucinatory tone that’s harder to effect in the more objective medium of film. Still, the relationship that drives matters to a devastating conclusion remains the film’s weakest element.
One aspect of it is nevertheless remarkable: Olivia’s look, not only in terms of Gadon’s goddess-like appearance, but of her costumes, designed in impeccable period style (as are all the others in the film) by Amy Roth. A similar attentiveness to detail is evident in every one of the picture’s craft contributions, including the production design by Inbal Weinberg, the art direction by Derek Wang, and the set decoration by Philippa Culpepper; “Indignation” rivals “Carol” in its evocation of the fifties, and the creamily-shot, lovingly lit cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt enhances the effect, as does Andrew Marcus’ smooth editing and Jay Wadley’s unobtrusive score.
Authors often complain about films made from their books, but in this case one cannot imagine Roth doing so. Schamus has produced many films and written a few, but this is the first time he’s also assumed the director’s chair, and though his adaptation naturally elides a few sections of the novella (there’s no big party-raid sequence, for example) and adds some new touches (the touching design on some wallpaper), overall it’s incredibly faithful to both the spirit and the letter of Roth’s work, showing a full appreciation of both its language and its style.