20 July 2024

Indignation (dir. James Schamus, 2016)

Film Review – Indignation (2016)

Released on Netflix late October, Indignation has received mixed reviews and unfortunately slipped between the popularity of mainstream movies. Though by no means a perfect movie, Philip Roth‘s novel adaption has a lot of potential behind it that only slightly missed the mark. That’s not to say it should be disregarded altogether. Themes of stifling authority, sexual repression and that age-old battle of God vs Science is handled beautifully. Logan Lerman delivers yet another heartfelt performance as the introverted Marcus Messner, with the more minor roles acted equally strong.

Perhaps the character of Olivia Hutton rendered a little underdeveloped, and some sensitive topics such as suicide and mental illness were casually skimmed over. Nonetheless, director James Schamus explores some interesting ideas from Roth’s novel. Typical social allegories swim around that of bullying or crime. Therefore, to be faced with a well-executed inspection of the philosophical makes a refreshing change. Along with the depiction of a secretly fragmented America (the stifling 1950s school setting perfectly back-dropping this tone) is an honest coming of age drama. Messner can sometimes dwell on the passive side, but is nonetheless passionate in his beliefs.

The pivotal scene occurring in Dean Caudwell’s office is nothing short of applaudable. The wordy narrative can occasionally get bogged down in explanations, but here it’s actually an advantage. Genuine frustration filled me when watching this masterfully written interplay, fully engaging me and rooting on for Messner‘s cause. Whether religious or not, one cannot deny the pure fury you feel towards the stubborn, annoyingly smiley headmaster. So, when the same setting occurs later on, we are already stewing in pre-empted rage. Any emotion this strong is a hallmark for a good film.

Left: Sarah Gadon, Right: Logan Lerman

On the flip side, I did feel a sense of being rushed through the narrative- particularly the beginning. When seeing that I only had 15 minutes left of the film, I was genuinely surprised. I felt it still had so much more to give as a story. The pace was somewhat uneven and occasional characters or plot lines were hollowed out. (What happened to his old roommate’s? They had good character potential!) I could see the point Schamus was making…and it was a good one. It was just a few paces behind from the finish line.

Perhaps some experimentation with the filmmaking would have improved things. Editing, camera angles, music, etcetera. This could have made Indignation stand out on Netflix’s showreel. Though I do admit, there is a quiet charm to this film that, deserving of a little more limelight, could be better off without it. Depicting a suffocated war-ridden America, the new generation (represented by Messner) struggles in questioning their closed-minded elders. A surprisingly morbid ending highlights Roth’s allegory, dodging the predictable ‘happy ending’ we have come so accustomed to. The final scene to me seemed a little lacklustre at first. The silent acting seemed to almost to lag behind what was actually happening. But then I realised…perhaps this was done on purpose. We aren’t handed a dramatized, sentimental finale. It was more honest than that. It just…happens.

Despite the film falling a little flat in some cases, the pillars of complex motifs, strong performances and a clear tone hold it together. My main issue was with Olivia’s character, whom I feel should have been more deeply explored or simply cast aside. To me, she felt like a stock role fashioned to raise questions in Messner’s self-discovery. Her troubled backstory was only briefly explained via second hand conversations. Also, the time frame needed to slow down in some parts and speed up in others. Brave a longer run time as to fully experience the entire story.

If we compare the similarly 1940’s college set movie Kill Your Darlings (dir. John Krokidas, 2013), we can draw parallels through themes of anti-establishment, sexual awakening and an inexperienced protagonist. However, in this award-winning directional debut, a fuller development is reached with an intensity and craft Indignation could have achieved had it gone that little bit further. Overall, Schamus still provides an emotional, thought-provoking drama that has strengths in its own right. Worth a watch, and speaks volumes of his ability as a filmmaker.

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