‘Indignation’ Has Fight, But Needs More Fury (REVIEW)
Two of the most important things for a young man are to gain independence and find love. In “Indignation,” a film based on the book by Philip Roth, Marcus Messner leaves Newark and his job in his father’s kosher butcher shop for a college in Ohio, where he promptly meets a beautiful blonde gentile student — Olivia Hutton — ironically played by Jewish-Canadian actress Sarah Gadon.
He takes her out for snails, and has his first sexual experience with her in a car.
One of his roommates, a theatrical fellow named Bertram Flusser, won’t stop singing or rehearsing for a play, and Messner can’t get any sleep. Flusser is played wonderfully by a creepy Ben Rosenfield, who played Nucky Thompson’s nephew on “Boardwalk Empire.”
Messner works hard to get good grades and shuns an offer to join the Jewish fraternity. The three central conflicts Messner has are with his father, Dean Caudwell and Olivia, whom he senses is bad for him (yet he wants her in spite, or perhaps because, of this).
Danny Burstein, who currently stars on Broadway as Tevye, where he milks cows, here cuts them up as a butcher with a temper, who constantly clashes with his son. Burstein is a supremely talented actor but we don’t see enough of this conflict.
When Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) questions Messner about not putting down on his form that he is Jewish, Messner says he is an atheist and doesn’t see the point of having to go to chapel, as required by the school for graduation. Messner argues his points like a lawyer and will not back down.
As Messner, Logan Lerman delivers a magnificent performance, alternating between mature and cathartic speeches when dealing with the dean, and showing the presence of a confused and vulnerable youth when speaking to his mother (who says she might divorce his father), and Olivia, who he realizes has significant mental issues.
Written for the screen and directed by James Schamus, the film is largely a faithful adaptation of the book, and nails the context of 1951. But by leaving out a major scene in which the men raid the women’s dorm, we lose a scene where the school’s loss of innocence is juxtaposed with the loss of innocence of boys going off to war and dying in Korea. Also missing in a final scene is when Messner curses out the dean, although an earlier one is included.
Gadon is pitch-perfect as a seemingly wonderful beauty who starts to unravel and is hiding more than can be imagined. Linda Edmon, who plays Messner’s mother, gives the most credible performance. She tells her son to pick any woman, even a gentile, but not one who has done what this young woman has done. She warns him that “weak people are not harmless. Their weakness is their strength.”
Letts, who played Andrew Lockhart on “Homeland” and has won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award, is decent in the role of an authoritative dean, but he doesn’t have enough fire and there’s not enough of a burn between him and Lerman as the characters have in the book.
“Indignation” is worth seeing for its powerful performances. Yet this is a case of the book’s being better than the movie. The film is a little too tidy, and the book is the right amount of messy. The insertion of a few omitted scenes would have gone a long way to give the viewer a sense of the transformational time and exactly what was at stake.
The story is an introspective look at how people fight so hard to get out of the traps others have laid for them, that they do not realize they have fallen into one of their own.