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Film Review: Indignation (2016)

Based on a Philip Roth novel, Indignation recounts the sophomore year of Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a young Jewish man who has transferred from a cosy community in New Jersey to a college in Ohio in order to escape the Korean War draft. A studious and reticent person, Marcus nevertheless falls in love with the beautiful but troubled Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) whose direct and keenly emotional manner throws him for a loop. Along with Olivia, the challenges of being a Jewish atheist in a very WASP-y and conservative school forces Marcus to confront the real world and grapple with questions of morality, relationships, and life.

The visuals are absolutely stunning in Indignation. The clean, mid-century lines and tones of the film’s interiors and costumes are carefully curated and presented through measured camera angles and creative lighting. Sometimes shots are composed so that the actors’ backs and not their fronts are in frame, creating an unusual tension. An oneiric quality in Indignation is echoed through certain motifs (a butcher’s display, a vase of flowers, a military drill), dreamy lighting, and parent-child themes that hover at the fringes. The orchestral score is also tastefully done.

Lerman as the protagonist and narrator proves to be a seriously underrated talent, completely bypassing his Percy Jackson days as he continues to shine in affecting dramas such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fury. His Marcus is stifled, intelligent, and full of nuance and repressed conflict. Gadon is also mesmerizing as the ethereal and enigmatic Olivia with her piercing gaze, elfin features, and girlish yet seductive voice. Her unnaturally calm manner rattles Marcus but also draws in the viewer with the mystery of its origins. A lot goes unspoken between the characters, even deliberately left out as the film jumps into the middle or end of Marcus and Olivia’s conversations, but enough is hinted at and the actors manage to bring across what is needed.

Indignation, however, does have a strangely theatrical aspect to it. Many scenes are of two actors talking at length in a very expository way, which kind of breaks the cardinal writing rule of “show, don’t tell.” The actors even find themselves speaking in a different cadence in these scenes as they go back and forth, debating a point to an unnatural degree. The biggest example of this is the first confrontation between Marcus and the school dean, Hawes Caudwell, played by Tracy Letts. The dean’s probing questions about Marcus’s social life morphs into a heated discussion about religious beliefs and rights as the traditionalist authoritarian Caudwell (who had already labelled Marcus as Jewish) tries to pierce into the core of Marcus’s life and make him fit into the school.

Introspective and subtle, Indignation is a film that lingers anxiously in the mind and asks more questions than it answers.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 4

Story: 4.5

Acting: 4.5

Dialogue: 3.5

Editing: 3

Visuals: 4.5

Music/Score: 4

Overall Average: 4

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