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Those who go into James Schamus’ Indignation unfamiliar with the 2008 Philip Roth novel on which it’s based may well come out of it thinking it’s essentially the tragedy of a forbidden love affair between super-focused college student Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) and neurotic Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), two outsiders in the ultra-conservative environment of (fictional) Ohio-based Winesburg College in 1951. But this is the point at which Schamus departs from the book, playing up the doomed romanticism through minor but telling additions and subtle shifts in emphasis. Perhaps Schamus—former CEO of Focus Features, making his directorial debut here—couldn’t help but let his producer instincts kick in, figuring this more overtly romantic angle would be a more widely palatable option than Roth’s bitter ironies and general fatalistic outlook.

It’s a measure of Schamus’ intelligence in bringing the book to the screen that enough of Roth’s broader vision survives, though you’ll have to dig for it. Roth, for instance, spends a fair amount of time in his novel’s early stages painting a picture of his main character’s calmer, pre-World War II life in Newark, N.J., with his kosher butcher father, Max (Danny Burstein), and mother Esther (Linda Emond), before Max’s sudden overprotective paranoia drives Marcus out of the house and into Winesburg. Schamus, however, forgoes that relatively idyllic prologue, relegating it only to hints Marcus offers in discussing his personal history with Olivia. Instead of making a big thematic meal out of Roth’s outlook—a worried belief in the possibility of one lone mistake disproportionately determining the path of one’s life, for better or, in Marcus’ case, worse—Schamus packs it all into one voiceover monologue we hear Marcus deliver in the beginning, with the writer-director perhaps trusting that the plot’s twists and turns will be enough to make the point. Such understatement extends to the film’s evocation of the sexual repression and political conservatism of the 1950s. Though Schamus includes a reasonable amount of Marcus’ first-person narration, more often he relies on a restrained classical style—Christopher Blauvelt’s coolly burnished cinematography, Jay Wadley’s forlornly melancholic score—to do the heavy lifting. Such an approach suggests the kind of constraining atmosphere that would lead a young man like Marcus to become mightily confused by the behavior of someone like Olivia, whose blow job to him on their first date initially scares him away from her.

Mostly, though, Schamus’ Indignation gets by on the strength of its performers. Logan Lerman certainly has the right boyish features for Marcus, and he nails the character’s awkwardness. If it’s a bit disconcerting to suddenly hear this immature young man invoking Bertrand Russell in defending his atheistic beliefs to Winesburg’s doctrinaire dean, Hawes Caudwell (Tracy Letts), Lerman thankfully compensates by dint of sheer bright-eyed conviction—the conviction of someone who gets an in-the-moment thrill out of taking a personal stand without thinking too much about the consequences. His two showstopping confrontations with Letts are the indubitable highlights of the picture: the moments in which the film transcends its airless classical trappings and generates some dramatic electricity, albeit of more a theatrical than a cinematic type. The film’s other moments of heat come from Sarah Gadon, whose scenes with Lerman display fleeting but palpable chemistry: she with a sense of unknowability amid the pretty exterior, he with a fascination born of his inexperience. Their sizzle together is enough to sell Schamus’ rather less interesting interpretation of Roth’s novel as a low-boil romantic tragedy.

Director: James Schamus
Writer: James Schamus, based on the novel by Philip Roth
Starring: Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond, Danny Burstein, Ben Rosenfield
Release Date: July 29, 2016

Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist, and the Village Voice in addition to Paste. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.