The Roaring Fifties

Indignation, a film by James Schamus.  With Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts, Linda Emond.  Reviewed by David Guy.  ****1/2

Indignation is a remarkable movie that completely stunned me and that I can’t recommend too highly.  The problem is that it’s taken from a Philip Roth novel—even the title sounds rather Philip Roth—and as I describe it it’s going to sound like many of the other things the man wrote.  But it isn’t, at least the movie isn’t.  It’s utterly unique.  For that I credit screenwriter and first-time director James Schamus.

But here comes the usual Philip Roth stuff.  Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) has grown up in Newark, son of a kosher butcher (Danny Burstein) and a very serious and probably mildly depressed housewife/mother (Linda Emond).  The Korean War is raging, and Marcus’ father has become morbidly anxious that something dreadful might happen to his son and only child, partly because he’s lost relatives in this and other wars.  Fortunately his son has a student deferment, and is heading off to Ohio to go to—in what I assume is a nod to an earlier great writer—Winesburg College.

Marcus is—to say the least—deeply serious and extremely intense; he hopes to go to law school and someday argue cases in front of the Supreme Court, and he doesn’t hesitate, even  in his freshman year, to disagree with his professors and make provocative—though respectful—comments in class.  He works in the library on his scholarship job, and it is there that he spies Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a beautiful blond whose name shouts out privilege and a WASP heritage.  Marcus asks her out, borrows his roommate’s car, and takes her to a restaurant named L’Escargot, where she teaches him what that word means by ordering some for their table.  Marcus, back in Newark, hadn’t had an occasion to try snails.

On their ride home she prevails upon him to park, and introduces him to a sexual act he’d never tried either.  The movie almost lost me at that point; I thought, Really?  On a first date in 1951?  A girl named Olivia Hutton?  But Olivia later explains what she did, and as we learn the circumstances of her life they explain it more.  This wasn’t just Philip Roth with his usual sexual obsession.  Though that’s probably part of it too.[1]

What I found utterly captivating about this movie was these two characters, the stunningly beautiful Olivia, more sophisticated and knowing than Marcus but also genuinely interested in him and in his quiet intensity, and the endearing Marcus, who wasn’t one of Roth’s wild intellectuals or sex-crazed creative people, just a boy from Newark who wanted to do well at school and not mix too much—he rejects an early chance to join the Jewish fraternity—but who also falls for Olivia’s looks, and winds up with a little more than he bargained for.  Maybe a lot more.  But the two of them have chemistry together, and seem a natural couple.

I guess the indignation in the movie is primarily Marcus’, and a lot of it seems justified.  He’s indignant that his father—after years of getting along perfectly well with his son—has suddenly gotten so anxious, so smothering; for once in a Roth story it’s the father and not the mother who is the problem.  He’s indignant that, at a college with thousands of students and only eighty Jews, he’s put in a triple with two Jewish roommates, and that the Jewish fraternity assumes automatically he’ll want to join.  He’s indignant that he has to attend chapel ten times a year—he considers himself an atheist, having read Bertand Russell—and that the powers that be spew out Christian teachings in utter disregard of who might be sitting there.  He’s an angry Jewish intellectual, not an atypical person for this time and place.  What’s endearing is that he’s so deeply serious.

In the middle of the movie he meets with the head representative of the powers that be, Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts), who is a graduate of the college, played football and baseball, and exudes freedom, justice, and the American way, Protestant style.  The ostensible reason is that Marcus has moved to a single (he had a fight with his roommates, who were making fun of Olivia), and the Dean is concerned that he isn’t adjusting.  I didn’t time it, but that scene seemed to last at least fifteen minutes, and in an age when a long Jason Borne scene is 30 seconds, I was amazed that a director would give a single scene so much time.  Marcus and the Dean disagree on everything, and I was full of admiration at the way Marcus kept telling the man off but was never disrespectful.  He kept standing up for himself.  That scene was the centerpiece of the movie for me, and I was glad Schamus gave it so much space.

Much happens after that scene—with Olivia, with the President of the Jewish fraternity—who lets Marcus know how the place really runs—with Marcus’ mother, and in another substantial scene with the Dean—but mostly these too are scenes of conversation, of a boy learning about the world and the difficult facts of people’s lives and having his heart broken, finding that he couldn’t beat the system.  I wondered about the movie’s very last scene, wondered if it struck a false note, if that was really necessary to make the point the story wanted to make.  I might have called for a different resolution.  But that’s debatable, and it’s just one scene.

Indignation left me wanting to read the novel, and to see more work by James Schamus, who up to now has been a writer and producer.  Everything about this movie is superbly done—I loved the way the camera settled on a single actor and really let us see him or her—and the three actors at its center are marvelous.  In a world where Suicide Squad is the big hit of the summer, this is the movie people should be seeing.

[1] An added attraction of this act was that there were two older and rather fussy women down the row from me, who were making noise and whispering and talking—I was cutting them a break because of their age—and when they saw this act, they walked out.  Thank you, Philip Roth.