Whose “Indignation” is it Anyway?by Natalie Jacobs July 31, 2016
There is a character trope in film – the manic pixie dream girl. This character is a controversial depiction of a female love interest whose sole purpose is to confuse, delight, and sadden an innocent, sensitive and slightly naïve male lead. Nowhere does this character feel more oppressively at home than in a period film about the United States in the 1950s.
James Schamus’ film adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2008 novel “Indignation” offers an authentically drab picture of that repressive and fearful time in American history as it follows Marcus Messner (played by Logan Lerman) from his last days working in his father’s kosher butcher shop to his first year at a Christian college in Ohio. The Korean War wages in the background. Marcus has pleased his parents and earned the envy of his friends for going to college on scholarship and therefore keeping out of the war and away from the almost certain death that ultimately finds him anyway.
“Indignation” is slow like the 50s, which can feel tedious to modern audiences but the intellectual banter is dropped like cookie crumbs that keep it worth following along until the end. One scene in particular, when Marcus engages in a battle of wits against Winesburg College’s Dean Caudwell, is masterfully rendered to the point of discomfort. It is in this scene, at about the halfway point, that audiences are first introduced to Marcus’s true indignation. He’s a self-proclaimed atheist who is forced to attend chapel 10 times per year in order to graduate. He’s a loner who has switched dorm rooms, from a triple where he was housed with two of only 80 total Jews on campus to a “rustic” single on the outskirts of the property. Under the pretense of concern for his adaptability and social skills, Dean Caudwell manages to be both anti-Semitic and condescending which brings out the debating, communist admirer in Marcus.
While it is fun to watch Marcus get riled up, the film tilts on the love story between Marcus and Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a stunning blonde with “8,000 moods a minute.” She has experience with alcohol and sex and attempted suicide and mental institutions and Marcus is mesmerized. He takes brooding joy in laboring over the moral quandary of her existence and the feelings she elicits in him. He knows that what his mother later expresses to him is right, that women like Olivia Hutton are dangerous to a promising young man’s future. And yet, he fights all his battles for her, for two reasons that don’t feel entirely satisfying – sex, and the allure of madness.
“Indignation” opens and closes with a nurse administering pills to an aged Mrs. Anderson (nee Olivia Hutton). It is ripe throughout with hints of her fraught childhood. Repeatedly, Olivia is called a slut and her worth called into question by nearly every character, both male and female. She possesses an obvious determination to overcome her darkness but a second nervous breakdown, after accidentally meeting Marcus’s mother, proves nature stronger than nurture in this instant. All of that is to suggest that perhaps Olivia is the one who deserves to be indignant. This film, as with the 1950s, provided no space for that.
It rushes to a finish that feels incomplete after taking such pains to be slow to the point of excruciating. Marcus, in voice over, attempts to wrap up the whole affair with a love bow that betrays the complexity of the relationship. “Indignation” the film does manage to introduce audiences to characters that seem worth continuing to get to know. Luckily inquiring minds have “Indignation” the novel to turn to for that.
“Indignation” is now playing in San Diego at Landmark Theatres Hillcrest.