Indignation, protagonist Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) proclaims in Philip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, is the most beautiful word in the English language. Though the word is never explicitly said by a character in James Schamus’ film adaptation, Schamus’ powerful and emotionally gripping storytelling is beautiful in its own right.
Set in 1951, “Indignation” follows Marcus, a young, studious Jewish boy from New Jersey, and his experience in his first year at Winesburg, a small college in Ohio. As a way to escape the draft for the Korean War, which claimed the life of his cousin, Marcus completely devotes himself to schoolwork.
But the enchanting Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) turns his otherwise logical head spinning when a date leads to a sexual turn. Additionally, a philosophical and religious argument with Winesburg’s didactic Dean Cauldwell (Tracy Letts) further separates Marcus from the “nicest boy in the world” attitude he was known for back home. This turn of events leads Marcus to subconsciously re-evaluate his priorities, which, as he reveals early on, results in his untimely death.
Although “Indignation” is Schamus’ directorial debut, he pulls off Roth, notorious for having un-adaptable books, remarkably well. Thanks to longtime experience in the industry as the former CEO of Focus Features, fearlessness in adding a risky framing device and an eye for style, Schamus draws the viewer into this crucial sliver of Marcus’ life. The artistic shots not only serve to capture the muted, academic aesthetic of a small college in the postwar era but also display Marcus’ narrative in a careful and purposeful manner. And thanks to Schamus’ screenwriting prowess, “Indignation” is perfectly comfortable in its unhurried, measured momentum — nowhere in the film does time feel like it’s dragging along.
Case in point: The 16-minute centerpiece of “Indignation,” a tense tête-à-tête between Marcus and Dean Cauldwell, goes by quickly as the framing, which starts off with distant, impersonal shots and ends with facial close-ups, follows the tempo of the verbal sparring. As the cool-headed Cauldwell keeps probing into Marcus’ personal life, Marcus’ polite manner escalates into biting frustration. Lerman especially shines in this scene — conveying Marcus’ first-person narrative and inner thoughts in front of a camera is no easy feat, especially since this is the moment in the book where Marcus mentally shouts “Indignation!” and where we get the title.
For the rest of the film, as well, the viewer can’t help but empathize with Lerman’s precocious Marcus. As for Olivia, Gadon delivers as the beautiful and mysterious love interest, bringing a complexity and depth to the character while steering clear of any shallow romanticization.
In the end, what really makes “Indignation” stand out is Schamus’ scholarly dedication to delving into the heart of the novel and expressing it to a larger audience. It’s clear that Schamus, who received a doctoral degree in English at UC Berkeley and teaches film at Columbia, was determined to do more than just bring justice to Roth. By employing a second framing device and introducing a clever twist that leaves both readers and nonreaders of the book crushed, Schamus ties an emotional weight to the story that’s not immediately accessible in Roth’s angry prose.
“Indignation” is not a lesson about thinking twice about your actions via a repressed college kid’s unfortunate experiences. Rather, the sensitive introspection Schamus weaves into the film creates a space for Marcus’ ghostly voice (and for us) to be OK with the fact that the circumstances that direct us to our fates aren’t so easily traceable. By the tragic end, we’re reassured that explaining the cause of someone’s death is not as simple as pointing to a matter of deterministic fate, free will or even a burst of indignation.