Some of you may recall the Choose Your Own Adventure books of the 1980s and 90s, which allowed the reader/protagonist to make decisions and flip to the assigned page to face the entirely unpredictable consequences – the cave you’ve decided to explore might be full of treasure or full of ravenous wolves and certain death. The books are fun, but real life doesn’t generally work that way. You can usually tell what kinds of choices are going to lead you to a deadly exploding mechanical dog. Usually, but not always.
Indignation, a new film based on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, explores the way that a lot of little, seemingly inconsequential choices can combine to bring you to a tragic conclusion. Roth’s novel probably doesn’t read quite like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, but the message of arbitrary outcomes comes through in both: one date leads to one minor argument leads to one ill-advised decision, and all of the sudden you’ve time traveled into the wrong side of a dinosaur fight.
Indignation is the story of a working class Jewish kid in New Jersey who goes to college in Ohio instead of going to fight in the Korean War. The story could have easily been a cliché tearjerker. Marcus is “getting out” of Newark in a way that kids like him couldn’t easily do in the 1950s. He’s a hardworking college kid infatuated with a girl. He’s Jewish in a world less than a decade removed from the atrocities of the Holocaust. Any one of these factors could have – and has – inspired a more dramatic movie, or at least a more emotional one, but this story is told with the kind of detachment associated with middle school math story problems. Surprisingly, that quality is the film’s greatest strength.
The coldness and sterility in Indignation is a deliberate choice by director screenwriter/director James Schamus. The movie would be well-suited to the theater, as Schamus doesn’t use the tools available in the medium of film – close-ups of longing glances, a heavy-handed score – to manipulate the audience or their emotions. His storytelling relies entirely on the script and interplay of the characters, and it’s all he needs. For example, Schamus’ use of touch to convey the tone of the film is a unique, effective choice. Many of us find the touch of someone we love or trust to be comforting, intimate, or at the very least to bring a sense of closeness. In Indignation, essentially the opposite is true. Whether it’s his girlfriend, his mother, or his dean, almost every occasion of physical connection leaves Marcus and the viewer feeling colder and more isolated.
Logan Lerman as Marcus serves as the one point of emotional connection between the viewer and the film. In the hands of a less gifted actor, Marcus would have been just another character to consider with detachment. But Lerman’s Marcus resonates in a way that fosters audience investment. A quick facial expression or subtle change in vocal tone make Marcus feel like the one flesh and blood person in a story that seems intentionally filled with cardboard cutouts. The most powerful scene in the film (and almost certainly the longest at 16 or 17 minutes) is a showdown between Marcus and the dean of students at the college (Tracy Letts). The scene is scripted to be tense, and strong performances by both Lerman and Letts make it especially engrossing and uncomfortable.
Indignation is an uncommon film about mostly common experiences. If it were more heavy-handed, it might feel like a cautionary tale, but very few of Marcus’ decisions seem ill-advised or unusual. He’s a college kid who could have been just about any college kid, and makes choices that just about any college kid might make in any era. In Marcus’s case, however, they’re rippling out to a tragic but possibly unavoidable conclusion.