I was looking forward to Indignation, not because I thought it was going to be particularly good, but because the writer/director was marginally rude to me on one occasion a dozen years ago, and apparently I hold a grudge. Having shown up early for a class being taught by Andrew Sarris, I entered the screening room and quietly took a seat next to the door. I had walked in on the last 10 minutes of James Schamus’ lecture, and rather than ignore my minor intrusion, he stopped what he was saying and asked, “Are you really this late?” to which I replied, “No sir, I’m really this early.” Now, the benefit of retrospection has granted me some perspective on Prof. Schamus’ consternation at my interruption, but I was sufficiently embarrassed by the incident that I subsequently refused to sign up for any of his classes, and when the opportunity to pan his directorial debut presented itself over a decade later, I have to admit that the prospect of avenging this absurdly insignificant slight was tempting. So imagine my dismay in having to confess that Indignation is actually not that bad. In fact, it’s better than “not bad.”
But just because this film is pretty good doesn’t mean it’s anywhere near flawless. Schamus, a long-time writer and producer for Ang Lee, still knows his way around a script. However, in this adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel of the same name, it would seem that he was faithful to his source material to a fault. Roth’s semi-autobiographical late-career novel, a 1950s coming-of-age story about a New Jersey Jew living in WASP-central Ohio while his contemporaries fight and die in Korea, is not exactly the most relatable story or the kind of plot that lends itself to a snappy, fast-paced script. The structure, while sound, lingers so long on the second act that it begins to beg the question of whether or not there’s a point to the proceedings, and a narratively significant framing device established in the opening frames is almost forgotten by the time it comes back around. The script is extremely talky, the dialogue a little stilted, but at least some aspect of this is appropriate to the material. All that said, when the story does finally come together in the third act, it’s profoundly affective and no punches are pulled. If Schamus could’ve cut 10 or 15 pages from the second act, this script might’ve been close to a masterpiece.
Directorially, Schamus has a little more room to develop. He seems to have lifted several pages from Kubrick’s book, and not all of them successfully. His camera finds its way into symmetrical compositions that often feel forced, and his tendency to shoot directly into exposed light sources lacks the technical mastery that allowed for such decisions to be unobtrusive in Kubrick’s work. His glacial camera movements call to mind the most challenging aspects of films like Barry Lyndon without the benefit of Kubrick’s photographic prowess, making them feel unnecessarily self-indulgent throughout the first act.
However, Schamus seems to find his footing over the course of the film, and the narrative symmetry imparted by his opening and closing shots is ultimately gratifying. That Schamus was able to accomplish such a solid evocation of his period setting on a minuscule budget might say more about his talent as a producer than a director, but the result is impressive nonetheless.
Schamus’ greatest strength as a director appears to be his ability to coax strong performances from his cast, and this is perhaps Indignation’s saving grace. Logan Lerman carries the film ably, although at times he seems ill-suited to portraying the intensity his character demands. David Cronenberg-favorite Sarah Gadon is eminently watchable, and if she occasionally stumbles over the script’s byzantine dialogue, she more than makes up for this deficiency with an unhinged energy that perfectly suits her character and illuminates every scene she plays. Playwright Tracy Letts delivers the standout turn of the film in his role as the crusty Dean, turning that trope on its ear with a subtlety and shading that make a 15-minute long unbroken sequence in which he trades intellectual barbs with Lerman inordinately entertaining in spite of its interminable length.
So, if I can’t quite say that Indignation is a perfect film, it is a very promising debut and leaves me curious to see what Schamus will be capable of in the future. Despite my reticence to admit this, Schamus’ work has overcome my own indignation, for lack of a better term. Rated R for sexual content and some language.
Now Playing at Fine Arts Theatre and Carolina Cinemark