Indignation is a literary film, but it still remains a cinematic one.
It’s a rarity that, outside of auteurs who have made their presentations of it as part of their calling card, a first-time filmmaker (or, in this case, director) could present melodrama without swaying too far into theatricality. Maybe it’s the source material (as I’m being told by friends singing praises toward the work of Philip Roth), but I appreciate any film that can do melodrama with intense sincerity, and come out feeling honest because of it. In Indignation, characters don’t speak to one another like they’re aware of their being characters; they speak like they’re real people. There’s something almost play-like in the writing, but there isn’t a flaw to be found in the entire ensemble. It’s a cliché statement for anything related to praise, but it fits here, and that has to be credited to director James Schamus.
How much of this film is Roth, and how much is Schamus, will be further pondered once I inevitably read the novel. But as of now, credit goes to the film as a work of its own. It feels so calculated, but doesn’t let us see the clockwork. That’s not easy to do, and it’s even less easy to make it a film that seems so minimalist while doing it. It seems like a small film, but Indignation is incredibly layered. Every scene, another footnote to its existential theme came piling on, and piling on. Not once distracting, and only feeling chaotic in a simple, small way not too unlike life itself.
Composed of mostly long stretches of dialogue, Schamus puts faith in his young leading man. Logan Lerman’s performance never once feels anachronistic, even when his character feels a little ahead of his time within his status quo (although, still a flawed, confused young adult). Schamus’ refinement with the visual look of the film captures the aura of 1951 in a way I haven’t quite seen before. Something about it seems artifact. Something about the way people speak within a post-WWII world, and about taboos that, by today’s standards, aren’t as much so. The concept of faith, while still in the same breadth today, feels even more overbearing. The act of a Jewish young man attending a Catholic school being a cause for power conflict; the equivalent of a minority in a Trump rally being booted out for “supposedly” looking like someone who chooses The Anarchist Cookbook as their scripture.
The dean of the school (played in bravado by playwright Tracy Letts) is a product of his time before our own men were products of their time. A generational gap (commonly referred to with the film’s multitude of issues being confronted), and a loose-bound textbook to rebel against between each and every one of them. What makes Lerman’s journey (a tragic one, in the realist sense) so poignant – and what I’m sure Roth was trying to achieve, based on the title – is his incapability of overcoming adversity in a time where the adverse couldn’t make it out unscathed. And even then, the fatalist in Roth, or Schamus, or faith itself, is something that can’t be closed.