Film Review: Indignation (USA, 2016) is a coming-of-age drama packed with substance

If all was right in the highly politicised world of award shows, Logan Lerman would be looking at a good upcoming season, seeing as his performance as Marcus Messner in James Schamus’ Indignation will be almost impossible to overlook. The Cold War-era film is an adaptation of Philip Roth’s period novel of the same name, on the surface a coming-of-age drama packed with the kind of substance works of a similar aesthetic wouldn’t manage. With such masterful, poetic dialogue that ebbs and flows like any high quality novel, Indignation hits all the right notes with its unraveling chain of causation innocently flung through an oppressive portrait of White America in the early 1950’s.

Marcus is a precocious, straight-A student that fortuitously avoids being drafted into the Korean War by attending a conservative college in Ohio (Winesburg College, a fictional institution). In Newark, the young man is the son of an overprotective (Kosher) butcher (Danny Burstein) and his wife, Esther (Linda Emond), but Ohio brings Marcus a chance for true independence, an ideal perfectly suited for such a strong-willed and insular mind. To demonstrate his need for a self-determined future, Marcus even politely rejects acceptance into the campus’ Jewish fraternity and firmly states in the film’s greatest scene that he is an atheist who values logic above all us.

Rationality and logic are what seems to drive Marcus on the surface, a resolve interrupted by his growing relationship with elusive classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). Forthright and emotional, Olivia represents the kind of deviation from his studies that seemed almost impossible up until their meeting, causing a sporadic sexual favour to butterfly into much more than Marcus’ best-laid plans allowed for. Soon enough, we see an increasingly frustrated Marcus standing defiantly against certain traditions and figures on campus, a quiet explosion handled with a remarkable sense of nuance by Lerman.

As mentioned above, the film’s greatest scene comes with a confident – slightly arrogant – rejection of religion, but that would only be a small part in a much larger scene. Clocking in at around 18 minutes, the scene in question is a powerful verbal battle between Marcus and the college’s Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), first concerning worry for Marcus’ request to get away from his roommates but then morphing into an almost Socratic conversation between a repressed Marcus and a bewildered, rigid Dean. The electricity in the dialogue is memorable, containing more action in text than most blockbusters can convey with same-same CGI, traversing religion and social frustrations with engrossing, flowing dialogue that leads into a change of circumstances for Marcus that confines him to a hospital bed. Marcus’ cold logic and social naiveté pull some incredible scenes when he is one-on-one with numerous supporting characters, but this dynamic with the Dean sticks out, a sharp look at this young man’s indignant battle against what he feels is social and religious oppression .

The driving force behind the film is loaded, kinetic dialogue, but the chain that lies deeper and ultimately ends the film is much more interesting. The idea of a butterfly effect is nothing new in cinema, but never has it been treated with such subtlety, such a human atmosphere devoid of the kind of embellishments reserved for lesser films. Schamus builds a plain, at times dull, atmosphere with an effectively nervous ambiance, embedding a sense of building dread that never loses sight of stretching an innocent sexual act into a propulsive dramatic setback. In the end, it’s about pinpointing the moment your life took a turn for the worst, a muse on responsibility and the decisions which keep our circumstances building to chaos.


Indignation is out in Australian cinemas from today.


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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is the Deputy Editor of the AU review and a freelance travel writer. You can reach him on Instagram by following @chrisdsingh.

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