Screenwriting is the underappreciated art of cinema. In Indignation James Schamus, the thrice Oscar-nominated writer, producer and film legend, shows himself to be a master of this craft. In what is also his first directorial venture, he provides a soft, subtle song that will grow in your mind after the credits have rolled.
Indignation is an adaptation of one of Philip Roth’s final novels, a weighty task to undertake but one with great returns. It centres around working class Jewish sophomore Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman). An intense soul, he spends his days studying and eschews other pursuits – even the persistent Jewish fraternity, because of his quiet but firm atheism. He meets Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a charming student with her own problems. Their relationship is filled with uncertainties, but as it begins to flourish, outside forces start to put both of them at risk.
Schamus has a brilliant sense for what to keep and what to cut from the novel. Indignation has the same characters, plot points and is clearly the same story, but is told in a manner that is appropriate for the 110 minutes you will spend in the cinema. He knows just when to slow the pace & when to speed it up; that a stolen two-second glance echoes through an 18-minute scene.
His work is performed by a series of astonishing performances. Both Lerman & Gadon are wonderful talents who express interiority especially well. They are both on top of their game here, doing the kind of acting that only comes from total trust in your director. It is a joy to watch two actors who have invested deeply in their characters reap the fruits of their study. With awards season inching ever closer, one would hope they will be recognised for them. There are many showier displays, but few better.
Also compelling is Tracy Letts as the school dean, whose calm conservatism seems harmless but has consequences for Marcus that we do not anticipate. Secondary roles from Linda Emond as Marcus’ mother and star of the future Ben Rosenfield as his loudmouth roommate bring some light to Marcus’ inner darkness, while still contributing to a world that forbids him to make his own choices. An old-time score soothes and rolls you around like whiskey in a glass.
One key scene plays out the philosophical battle at the heart of the film. The conversation between Marcus and Dean Caudwell goes on for so long that you wonder if all other interests (Olivia, his family, his studies) have been abandoned & you won’t leave that room. But just as you start to wilt, it is pulled back around. Schamus shows he can make an audience both comfortable and on edge at the same time.
We begin at the end, with footage of Marcus’ time in the Korean War, years after he has left the college. This device is perfectly handled by Schamus – it is our knowledge of where Marcus will end up that makes his journey towards that point so painful. There is no grandstanding, no gore here, yet my hand was covering my mouth at the emotional resonance of an extraordinary ending.
There are exquisite individual moments too. Most memorable is Marcus’ first sighting of Olivia; it is as good a capture of the feeling ‘love at first sight’ as I can remember. The typical film sex scene is smartly undermined – Schamus spoke about focussing on Lerman, as the cinematic orgasm is usually a glorified female one. The passion with which he spoke about this shot at a Sundance London screening in June suggests he has further successes as a director in him.
After success at Sundance in January and in London at Picturehouse Central in June, Indignation is currently screening across the U.S. Those in the U.K. must wait until November 18th, but it is worth it for this deeply-felt, expertly-made drama.