Film review: Indignation

Portrait of an atheist as a young man


Screenwriter and producer, James Schamus directs his debut feature in this superb, engrossing adaptation of Philip Roth's 2008 novel, which captures the repressive atmosphere of postwar America with depth and poignancy. Indignation is set in 1951, at the height of the Korean War - the shadow of which envelops the film and its characters.

Clever, handsome, intense and an avowed atheist, Marcus "Markie" Messner, (Logan Lerman) is the only son of a kosher butcher in Newark, New Jersey. He receives a scholarship place at college in Ohio, which exempts him, unlike many of his contemporaries, from the draft. Leaving behind the safe confines of his Jewish neighbourhood, as well as his increasingly overprotective, pathologically anxious father (Danny Burstein), he rooms with two other Jewish boys.

He soon finds this accommodation arrangement difficult and it is the subject of the first of his many indignations. Later, he refuses to join the Jewish fraternity and strongly objects to the college requirement to attend chapel regularly.

Marcus falls in love with beautiful but deeply troubled fellow student, Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). She is sexually forward and not Jewish, both adding to her allure for Marcus. These two outsiders form a connection but in his innocence - and influenced by love and lust - he is unable to understand the implications of her mental instability. His mother (Linda Esmond), however, does. In a mesmerising scene layered with guilt and love, she manipulates him into ending the relationship warning him that, "weak people are not harmless. Their weakness is their strength."

The centrepiece of the film is an 18-minute, dramatic, verbal clash between Marcus and Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts) in which Marcus is harried into revealing his moral, political and religious opinions.

His atheism and intellect are pitted against Caudwell's conservative Christian values. Caudwell is in command, asserting his calm authority with precision and a degree of cruelty, which turns almost comic in his attempts to pretend to try to understand and engage with Marcus's sensibilities.

Caudwell bullies Marcus about the reasons for his housing switch; why he did not state on his form that he was Jewish; and how he manages to get by without belief in God. (Marcus's reply is that he gets "straight A's").

As the discussion becomes more heated, the tensions intensify and Marcus desperately tries to maintain physical and emotional control.

If Indignation has a weakness, it is structural. The film uses two framing devices, which feels unnecessary. One of them - scenes of the Korean War - would be enough to bookend the themes of memory, choice and consequence. But this is a minor quibble. The film's taut screenplay and all-round stellar performances deliver the emotional complexity required. For some Roth devotees, this adaptation might at last be a credible one.

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