James Schamus is 56 — a little late, you might think, to start a career as a director. But as a long-time screenwriter (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), producer (Brokeback Mountain), and savvy film executive who championed such talents as Ang Lee, Todd Haynes and the Coen brothers, Schamus knows his way around the business and the art of movies. With Indignation, his fierce, feeling adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, Schamus kicks off a new phase in his career with impressive finesse. When he wrote the novel, Roth was looking back at his own life in 1951 as a New Jersey student who left the Newark campus of Rutgers University for Bucknell College in Pennsylvania, mostly to avoid being drafted to fight in Korea. Both Roth and Schamus approach youthful rebellion through the prism of maturity. And the film resonates from that perspective.
Logan Lerman (Fury, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) excels as Marcus Messner, a “nice Jewish boy” from Jersey who flees the control of his kosher butcher father (Danny Burstein) and watchful mother (Linda Emond) to attend the fictional, Christian-based Winesburg College in Ohio (any references to the stories of Sherwood Anderson are purely intentional) . It’s here that Marcus encounters first love — actually, his first blow job — and the insidious effect of institutional anti-Semitism. At Winesburg, chapel attendance is mandatory. Marcus chafes at the prospect, not as a Jew but as an atheist, which leads to a run-in with the dean, Hawes D. Caudwell, played to patrician perfection by Tracey Letts, the playwright (August: Osage County) and actor (Homeland). Marcus alleviates his loneliness and isolation with shiksa godess Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who provides the above-mentioned sexual favors and a close encounter for Marcus with the mental illness that led Olivia to attempt suicide. Gadon brings flesh and blood to an underwritten character that could have slid by as a neurotic cliché.
Schamus strikingly conveys the hothouse atmosphere that puts so much pressure on Marcus. And the scene in which Marcus and the dean go at each other in the Caudwell’s office holds you in its grip for a shattering quarter of an hour. The movie is very careful to make Caudwell a well-meaning product of his time. Sure, his prejudice is toxic. But Caudwell thinks his Christian principles will actually nurture the gifted Marcus. Schamus stages the encounter, a duel between an authority figure and a student without the bureaucratic clout to make his arguments stick, like a philosophical fight to the death. It’s riveting cinema. Lerman and Letts give performances that will knock the wind out of you.
In tackling the resentments in Marcus and Caudwell and the still bristling mastery in Roth — Indignation is one of the few adaptations of Roth’s work to make it to the screen with its claws intact — Schamus reveals his gifts as a filmmaker who respect the words and the space between them in equal measure.