James Schamus’ debut film is a beauty to behold.
Just like Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), it is impossible for the audience of Indignation to not be mesmerized by the ‘ceaseless motion of Olivia Hutton’s leg’; or by any of the dozens of other dazzling images in the film.
Indignation is a film defined by two principle aspects, both of which are encapsulated in the moments that Marcus spends watching Olivia (Sarah Gadon) dangle her leg over the armrest of a chair in the library of the fictional Winesburg College in rural Ohio. The first of these are the film’s absolutely beautiful images. The second is the film’s cast of complex, emotional, and profoundly deep characters. Director James Schamus told us in our interview with him that the characters were what convinced him to make this film when he read the novel of the same name by Philip Roth.
Young Marcus is a working class Jewish boy from Newark, New Jersey who grew up working in his father’s butcher shop. The year is 1951, the Korean War is in full swing, and Marcus goes on a scholarship to Winesburg so he may avoid being drafted. At school, he is immediately confronted with religious tensions. The school has placed him into a room with the only two other Jews on campus who are not part of the Jewish fraternity. Though supposedly secular, and though there is an entire fraternity comprising of Jewish boys, all of the college’s students are required to attend Christian chapel ten weeks per school year. Marcus self-identifies as an atheist and does everything in his power to separate himself from all religious identities.
Lerman pulls off this performance with mastery. He manages to convey all the passion, innocence, and confusion of youth with an intensity of self-awareness and wisdom that feels well beyond his years. When Olivia tells Marcus that he’s special and belongs in the Sorbonne instead of Winesburg, we truly believe her.
Olivia Hutton serves as a more enigmatic, more unstable, yet equally self-aware counterpart to Marcus. She has come to Winesburg under more tumultuous circumstances, detailing to Marcus the drinking problem she overcame and her suicide attempt some years earlier. Sarah Gadon pulls off this role with such a degree of tenderness, care, and quiet energy that she seems to embody a force of nature sweeping across the screen with a presence that feels out of place from the stifling confines of rural Ohio in the 1950’s.
It is no coincidence that the beautiful images which lend the film the other half of its power are primarily images containing Gadon. Olivia Hutton becomes just as much an object of the audience’s obsessive fantasy and adoration as she does for Marcus.
When he arrives to her dorm to pick her up for their first (and only) date, she appears in the doorway leading to the staircase as if out of another world. She steps fully down onto the next stair, and freezes to stand there motionless and look directly at him and at us. Later in the same scene, the image of Olivia leaning forward over a plate of escargot and asking Marcus to tell her about his childhood is intoxicating. When she visits Marcus in his hospital room after he has had his appendix removed, they get into a bit of a spat and, after he quells her, she stands and looks at him, smiles, and quietly walks out the edge of the frame. The camera does not move to follow her.
Images of Olivia Hutton delight and disorient with their dreamlike beauty. Before we even realize, she has disappeared and the story has stumbled forward, landing us in a slightly abrupt conclusion. Just like young Marcus, the audience feels the sudden, blunt blow that is one’s loss of innocence. The film, in its own measured and dreamlike way, manages to paint a flawless portrait of the innocence of youth. Then, the film swiftly hits us with the moment we and Marcus lose that innocence forever.
Schamus is a master storyteller, but it becomes clear that his gift is stronger with people over plot. While the plot of the film is nothing short of incredible, it feels that way due to the light and beauty that the characters and actors bring to each scene they appear in. There is no weak character, and there are no weak links in the cast.
Ultimately, Indignation is a film that manages to do something very difficult from the get-go. It manages to feel timeless. Each audience member has known an Olivia Hutton and a Marcus Messner. Each audience member has been an Olivia Hutton and a Marcus Messner. The film is a beautiful accomplishment and will be studied by actors for years to come. The plot becomes overshadowed by the sheer strength and complexity of the characters, but this makes for a much better film.
Photo credits: New Zealand International Film Festival.