Book-ended by two interpretations of the same scene of conflict from the Korean War, Indignation is James Schamus’s film adaptation of Phillip Roth’s novel.
Marcus (Logan Lerman) – a sort of modern day Fred Savage-a-like – is a sensible young lad living in a small Jewish community in 1950s America. He has gained entry into a fictitious, ultra-conservative college in Ohio where he intends to keep his head down and study hard. Despite such noble aspirations and such a sensible demeanour for a young man, it does nothing to allay the fears of his elders. Whilst some concern themselves with how he’ll ever be able to remain kosher in Ohio, it’s his smothering, over protective father, Max (Danny Burstein), in particular that seems most peturbed by his son’s imminent departure, troubled as he is by the trend of so many young men leaving home to join the military only to return in body bags. These same set of somewhat unrelated criteria, Max somehow seems to believe apply to his son’s educational predicament and has convinced himself that it’ll all end in tears.
Such mollycoddling has driven Marcus to distraction and he is only too pleased to flee the nest.
Allocated a room share with two others – supposedly to help him settle in better – Marcus sets about pursuing a deliberately restrained college existence. His commitment to study and self-betterment being perhaps some sort of subconscious need to not end up being a butcher, like his father?
But he’s not factored in distractions – considerable distractions.
His room mates have little consideration for his scholarly pursuits, piping out classical music at great volume, or reciting plays as he attempts to study. Add to this a campus Jewish fellowship is seeking to recruit ‘one of their own’ into their fold. Marcus is anything but interested, a prevailing attitude that is met with considerable confusion.
The waves of relentless angst and pressure that emanate from his father only add to Marcus’ troubles, but perhaps most distracting of all are the seductive charms of the slightly unhinged, but impossibly beautiful, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who works her way into Marcus’ life, quickly leading him into as yet unchartered, and rather uncomfortable territory.
Marcus’ college life is not panning out the way in which he had envisaged it, and with this being stifled 1950s America, and with Marcus’ tendency towards outward displays of strong-willed, intellectual atheism in a fervently religious place of further education, it’s not going to take much for him to land himself in hot water.
Which he duly does.
It’s hard to know what to make of Indignation. On the one hand, there’s certainly intrigue generated from Marcus’ problematic relationship with Olivia, and from the friction generated between Marcus and his room mates, his father, and most importantly, between himself and his college Dean, Caudwell (Tracy Letts), as Marcus’ rather anarchic (within the bounds of his college, at least) attitude to the ‘system’ renders his place at the college increasingly untenable. It’s also fascinating to see how the prevailing views and prudish small town attitudes of the 1950s impact greatly upon Marcus’ ultimate destiny, potentially jeopardising his future thanks in the main to his own stubborn intellectual pride.
That’s all very well and good, but there’s no hiding the fact that Indignation comes across as being rather slow and ponderous. One scene in particular – a sort of battle of the intellectual and academic minds between Marcus and Caudwell – has actually been hailed as the defining scene of the film by many; a scene in which religion, politics and the writings of Bertrand Russell are banded about with intended dramatic affect. But it’s so frustratingly drawn out that I could feel indignation rising within me at having paid money to sit through such self-indulgent tedium.
And I’m not sure that that was the director’s intentions.
Be it the indignation of the college Priest at the unruly behaviour of some of the students, the indignation of Olivia having been considered something of a slut merely for being ‘demonstrably’ fond of Marcus in the back seat of a car, the indignation on the part of Marcus’ roommate, whose car it was, or of course indignation on Marcus’ part having stayed true to his academic, intellectual, atheistic and love choices, only to be rounded upon from all corners – it’s fair to say that within Schamus’s piece, indignation abounds.
It’s a film not without its merits, particularly concerning scenes of burgeoning sexual tension between Marcus and Olivia, and the tough, conservative consequences that ‘societal pressures’ demand as a result, but the lasting impression is of a film experience that can best be described, unfortunately, as rather ‘arduous’ – not to mention more than just a little self-satisfied.