INDIGNATION – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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Indignation is indeed one theme in the movie INDIGNATION, based on Phillip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, along with death, life, and the “what if” of choices made. Set in 1951, young college freshman Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) is filled with indignation on several levels, even before coming to Winesburg College in Ohio from his working-class home in Newark, New Jersey. The Korean War, which Marcus avoids with his college deferment, is a looming presence throughout the story.

INDIGNATION perfectly captures both the look and the feel of  a repressive, restrictive, conformist 1950s America. It was a buttoned-down time of tightly controlled emotions, with World War II still in the near past, Cold War commie-hunting in full swing and women safely back in traditional roles, and the youth culture and freethinking of the 1960s still in the future. .

The film beautiful recreates the look of the period, from costumes to a muted tones recalling photos and advertising of the time, all carefully researched. The attention to detail draws us into the world of Roth’s story.

This well-acted, beautifully-detailed, and restrained drama is the first directorial effort for James Schamus, a scriptwriter, producer and past CEO of Focus Features, a company known for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN and FAR FROM HEAVEN among other art-house gems. Although Schamus left Focus Features, INDIGNATION is the kind of serious, grown-up film for which the studio is known.

This film is also one of the most successful adaptations of Roth’s works for the screen. Although the film diverges in some details from Roth’s novel, it remains true to the book’s sense, and particularly to the director’s response to it. The story is semi-autobiographical, partly based on Roth’s college experience at Bucknell University, although the name is changed to Winesburg College, a reference to Sherwood Anderson’s “Winesburg, Ohio.”  The story mixes elements of melancholy, romance and a meditation on life and fate.

In 1951, the Korean War, the smaller Cold War proxy conflict that predates the longer Vietnam one, means that worries about the draft and death on a battlefield dog the working-class Jewish neighborhood where Marcus and his parents live in Newark. The war hovers in the background throughout the film, and in fact, it opens The only child of a Kosher butcher Max (Danny Burstein) and his wife Esther (Linda Emond), Marcus has been the “perfect son,” as his mother puts it. Dutifully working along side his father in the butcher shop in Newark, Marcus gets straight As at school, earning his a scholarship from his temple. Attending college will exempt him from the draft and the Korean War.  Fear of losing his only child in a far-off war grips his father. By choosing a Midwestern college, Marcus hopes to escape his father’s clinging and constant worry. Although he does not openly admit this to his father, his mother knows and understands..

A kind of culture shock awaits Marcus at Winesburg College, which is Christian as well as  conservative. A self-disciplined and ambitious young man, he has great confidence in his own intellect but, typical of the time, he is emotionally reserved and shares little of his inner life. Marcus arrives on campus planning to focus entirely on his studies. He is assigned a room with the only two other Jewish students in the dorm, Bertram Flusser (Ben Rosenfield) and Ron Foxman (Philip Ettinger), but politely declines their invitations to socialize. Equally politely, he  turns down a personal invitation from charming Sonny Cottler (Pico Alexander), the head of the one Jewish fraternity on campus, and his frat brother Marty Ziegler (Noah Robbins),  to join. His studies and his job in the library take up all his time, he tells them.

One of the things Marcus resents most is the requirement to attend the weekly chapel service, not because he is Jewish but because he is an atheist. Nonetheless, Marcus cooperates with the rule and keeps his opinion to himself – at least, until confronted by Dean Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), the college’s Dean of Men in a meeting in the dean’s office. During this powerful, pivotal scene, Marcus tries to evade the dean’s probing questions while maintaining his personal integrity, but eventually references Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

The scene is an acting tour-de-force for both Lerman and Letts, as well as one of the dramatic turning points for the film. Letts’ Dean Caudwell is an overbearing personality convinced he is mounting a charm offensive  as he bullies Marcus – encouraging him to join a fraternity or the baseball team, asking him about dating. But Marcus’ life-long self-discipline leads him to repeatedly try to politely deflect the dean’s assault.  During the course of their verbal fencing match, Marcus, suffering from undiagnosed appendicitis, gradually lets down his steely guard and reveals his long-hidden indignation.

In an earlier scene, Marcus’ plan to focus only on his studies is altered when, while working in the library, he finds himself hypnotized by the swinging ankle of a beautiful blonde fellow student. Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) seems to be everything Marcus is not – wealthy, sophisticated, elegant, coolly bold. Borrowing his roommate’s car, he takes Olivia on a date to the town’s one fancy French restaurant. While Olivia is charmed by Marcus’ mix of inexperience and intelligence, the date leaves Marcus confused. Despite her seeming confidence, Olivia has a troubled side,  a survivor of a suicide attempt. Somehow, the two find themselves slowly but irresistibly romantically drawn to each other.  .

Lerman is very good as Marcus, where his innocent and boyish looks help in playing the character as calm on the surface but tense underneath, with the character often described as “intense.” Gadon is the perfect mix of vulnerability and poise, wary yet frank, and she generates most of the romantic warmth in the relationship. The director shot in New York, which allowed him to draw on a talented pool of Broadway actors for supporting roles. Both Lerman and Letts, the only person to win both a Tony award for acting and a Pulitzer prize (for “August: Osage County”), are outstanding in their duel of wills, which starts with the riveting scene in the dean’s office. The most romantic scenes, strangely, take place when Marcus is hospitalized. Their idyll is interrupted by the arrival of Marcus’ mother, whose practical concerns extract a promise from her son, in a pair of scenes featuring moving performances from Emond.

There is something of Greek tragedy in this moving, melancholy tale of best-laid plans gone awry, and the story’s what-if scenario gives it a timeless element. INDIGNATION is not for the action crowd but for for fans of finely crafted drama and splendid acting, it has much to offer.

4 1/2 of 5 Stars