Indignation is the directorial debut of screenwriter/producer James Schamus and one of two Philip Roth adaptations being released this year, along with Ewan McGregor’s American Pastoral. If either of them thought that adapting the work of one of America’s most famous living novelists would make for a soft start to their directorial careers, they’d have done well to review the rather woeful history of Roth’s work on screen so far. Ranging from terrible to mediocre, these films have all come up against the fact that Roth is a thoroughly un-cinematic writer—his novels lack the driving narratives or broad characters that typically make for successful page-to-screen fare. Roth sculpts with subjectivity, his great theme the tension between our internal lives and our circumstances. Without the aid of his hallmark first-person narration, adaptations of Roth’s work stand to read as shallow period pieces, featuring characters with confused and unknowable motivations.
Thankfully, Schamus is not the sort to use Roth’s name as a marketing tool. A noted film academic and producer/screenwriter, Schamus’ screenplays, particularly Brokeback Mountain, reflect a knack for writing characters whose feelings are at odds with the world around them. With Indignation, he uses minimal narration and a spare directorial style to make the inner lives of his characters intelligible, without losing their complexity. Some may find the bleak ambivalence of the film frustrating, but those who come to Indignation without expecting easy resolution will find a rich, haunting reflection on life’s relentless mutability, and the things we do to resist it.
These themes are introduced from the film’s first moments, in which the voice of the protagonist, here dead, discusses the nature of the afterlife over scenes of American soldiers fleeing through a torch-lit temple. We are introduced to the owner of this voice and the film’s protagonist shortly after: Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the serious and ambitious son of a butcher, determined to avoid being drafted into the Korean War by attending a Christian liberal arts college. Marcus is forced to contend with his increasingly neurotic and protective father (Danny Burstein) and the prejudices of his conservative College, while coming to terms with his burgeoning love for Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a fellow student with a troubled past.
As the film progresses, we learn that Marcus’ quiet striving masks a profound resentment for the rigid social mores of 1950’s America he feels forced to endure. Marcus’s righteous anger is always apparent in the book—the genius of Shamus’s screenplay is how it uses the slow stripping-away of Marcus’s defenses as a dramatic spine for a story light on plot. Watching Marcus’s strained propriety erode in the face of a love he doesn’t understand and a series of insults to his acute sense of injustice, makes for compelling viewing. This is particularly true in a scene like Marcus’s 15-minute argument with the dean (Tracy Letts): a prolonged clash over morality, religion and proper conduct, made riveting by the threat of Marcus’s barely controlled frustration boiling over.
Writing this subtle demands strong performances, and they are plentiful here. Lerman tempers Marcus’s fury with a note of bemusement, bringing likeability to a character whose self-righteousness would otherwise become unbearable. With rapid shifts from anger to wry affability, Lerman portrays a boy torn between secular rationalism and his father’s cardinal neuroses. Death is inevitable and ubiquitous, and he must grasp onto any thing, person or institution that might help stave it off. Gaddon, as Olivia, serves as a wonderful counterpoint to this intensity. Like Marcus, she is unable to conform to the expectations of the era but tries to escape the ensuing dissonance through dissociation, hence she is naturally a flitting and ungrounded character, but Gaddon does a wonderful job of exposing the quiet intelligence and profound sadness underwriting her vagueness. Letts’ superhuman equanimity makes Dean Caudwell the perfect embodiment of the establishment that Marcus is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by. Linda Emond is terrific as Marcus’ mother, making Roth’s dialogue sing like no actor before her.
Shamus matches the subtlety of the screenplay with an old-fashioned directorial sensibility, all perfect framing and static camera work. Though it would be easy to ascribe the plain presentation to the sheepishness of a first-time director, this would be to underestimate the impact that Shamus’s minimalist aesthetic has on the narrative. Marcus is kept in focus during the film’s early exchanges, which foregrounds his subjectivity quite literally and evokes his adolescent solipsism through the unreal quality of his interlocutors. As he disassembles, medium shots and off-centre framing emphasise the unbridgeable distance between the characters, and create a sense of the alienation felt by people living in systems beyond their control. It’s hard to criticise this as ‘safe’ filmmaking when it’s used so effectively.
Though the film mirrors the nuance of Roth’s original, it is a marked tonal departure. Roth’s book throbs with its titular emotion, while Schamus’s film brings a sentimental touch to proceedings; more Perks of Being a Wallflower than Portrait of the Artist. Fans of Roth are sure to cry foul at the defanging, but a lot of what Schamus disregards in the book is what makes this work as a movie. The anger that runs through Roth’s novel is the ugly, masculinist variety that he’s known to luxuriate in; the kind that’s made him distinctly unfashionable among well-read millennials. Call it a question of taste or a reflection of the limitations of cinema, but it’s hard to imagine effectively incorporating all the novel’s adolescent sanctimony, or the mass panty raid that dominates its final section without the softening wit of Roth’s narration.
Roth’s oeuvre is a monument to the indispensability of the novel and no adaptation of his work could fully encapsulate it. Like the best cinematic Shakespeare adaptations, Schamus narrows in on certain aspects of the text to create something new. Stripped of its vitriol, Roth’s story becomes less of an indictment of the hypocrisy of McCarthyist America and more of mournful reflection on the compromises we are all forced to make and the price they quietly exact. Indignation is a remarkably poised and affecting debut that melds teenage melodrama, existential ennui and the best of Roth’s peerless prose, to create something different but no less powerful than its source.