Indignation (2016)

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“It is important to understand about dying.”

Indignation is a film about many things: elitism, individuality, heritage, untapped sexuality, 1950’s classicism. But no aspect is more integral to the story than a thorough aversion – and occasionally a triggered repulsion – to moral compromise. In one such circumstance, our leading man’s gag reflex is even tripped to the point of inducing vomiting when goaded towards conformity. Indignation comes packed with these thematic elements, all ironed, neatly pressed, hung with care. There’s craft to this picture, and eruptive moments of emotion, however sunken and slight both may be. Some sorely missing emphasis might have done the trick.

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New to the fictitious Winesburg College in Ohio, sophomore Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a native of Newark, uses higher education to enlarge the distance between himself and his parents. Mom’s overprotective. Dad, a butcher by trade, fears for his son’s safety because they live in a time of fear. The Korean War, to be specific. Marcus just lost an old friend in battle. And so he relocates from the East Coast to the Midwest, seeking change and separation. Neither can be found at Winesburg. Marcus is Jewish yet identifies as Atheist, which leads him to arguing against the school’s mandatory chapel attendance with Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). He doesn’t get along with his roommate and denies membership in the Jewish fraternity. Isolating years await him. Then he catches the eye of Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon).

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The sparks between Marcus and Olivia don’t exactly leap off the screen or shoot out like a roman candle. If anything it resembles a sparkler. Incendiary, basic, quickly extinguished. Marcus likes the look of this girl. Olivia likes the sensitivity of this boy. We see this while they dine at a French restaurant. He’s uptight and staring. She’s breezy, eating escargot, grabbing his hand and telling him to relax. The scene bears a strong resemblance to last year’s Carol, although far less compelling in its execution and composition. They head home before curfew, take a back road, she unzips his pants and her head disappears from the frame. We know what is happening just from seeing Marcus’ flabbergasted expression. It’s that much of a snap occurrence too, one that exemplifies the reckless decision-making of young adults in order to satisfy primal urges. The scene hits well, as does another in a hospital ward that plays to a familiar fondling tune. Your heart rate escalates with these characters while your mind refuses to commiserate.

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Industry veteran James Schamus makes his directorial debut with this film, and his time spent as an understudy to Ang Lee is certainly evident. This is prestige filmmaking 101, by the numbers, in accordance with the books, playing by the laws of the land. That makes for a very diplomatic narrative experience, as well as an overly pragmatic tone, entirely foreseeable and lacking suspense. I’d liken it to a court room drama that never makes it to the actual hearing, instead focusing on the fruitless exploits of our two iconoclasts. Marcus is a samurai of argument, and would rather go through with Seppuku than follow the lead of others. His fate seems inevitable because he carries his own sophist pride like a tantōOn the other hand, Olivia – performed with great poise by Gadon – cannot overcome the labels forced upon her. Marcus is said to be smart, kind, athletic. Olivia is said to be a damaged and unstable harlot. But what’s the truth? Schamus’ approach can be called novel, especially considering that it’s an adaptation of Philip Roth’s book. However, this stands no chance against Indignation’s preferred method to search for the truth. Rather than being an epistemic pursuit, the picture settles for a heavily subjective dialogue lacking sincerity. It’s one that’s occasionally meaningful while continuously mistimed and mismanaged.

“You sound like a fortune cookie.”

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

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