Indignation, an adaptation of the novel by Philip Roth, delivers. The film begins with two seemingly unrelated scenes: soldiers in the midst of the Korean War, and an elderly woman staring emptily at a floral-patterned wall while receiving her medications at a nursing home. The opening voiceover of both scenes recounts the “little” mistakes people make in life that ultimately lead to their death, the steps individuals take that lead them up to this very moment.
After the opening voiceover, the audience is introduced to the protagonist: Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), a classic nice Jewish boy who works diligently alongside his father in a kosher butcher shop in the 1950s. Like in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Lerman takes center-stage in another coming-of-age film as the character he plays makes the transition from his somewhat confined Newark, New Jersey Jewish community to the WASP-y environment of fictional Winesburg College in Ohio. Through attending Winesburg, Marcus initially succeeds in avoiding the draft to the Korean War that has left some of his childhood friends dead.
Upon arrival at Winesburg, Marcus chooses to focus solely on his studies and isolates himself. He rejects the recruiting efforts of the only Jewish fraternity on campus, and instead of attempting to befriend his roommates—the only other Jewish students who are not a part of the fraternity—he merely tolerates them. He keeps to himself completely, until, on one fateful day, he spots the beautiful Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon) in the library. A blonde, Gentile goddess who comes from money, Olivia is the epitome of everything that Marcus is not. While at first shocked by her sexual audaciousness on their first date (which he attributes to the fact that her parents are divorced), he gradually finds himself mesmerized by this troubled girl who tried to kill herself in the past, captivated by her world of instability and mental illness. He becomes extremely defensive of her when his roommate refers to her as a “slut,” even choosing to relocate to a different dorm room. His infatuation with Olivia appears to stem from her marching to the beat of her own drum instead of fitting into the mold of the rigid standards of their 1950s society, from both a mental and sexual perspective.
Other than his involvement with Olivia Hutton, Marcus’s desire to free himself from authority and conformity becomes evident throughout the film. He attends Winesburg not only to escape the draft of the Korean War, but also to escape his overprotective father who has been severely impacted by the premature deaths of other young men in their community. His resentment towards authority reaches its peak during the 20 minute confrontation he has with Dean Caldwell, (Tracy Letts) during which Marcus brings up his contempt for the requirement to attend chapel a certain number of times a year in order to graduate. Other Jewish students just accept the reality, but Marcus is incapable. Marcus is so repulsed by the Dean’s ideology that he becomes physically ill. This confrontation is a huge chunk of the movie. We learn that Marcus identifies as an atheist, apparently not the nice Jewish boy who is introduced to us at the beginning of the film. By proclaiming himself an atheist, Marcus seems to be rejecting all authority, even one divine in nature.
While breaking out of a system of conformity tends to be the protagonist’s triumph in other works of literature, Marcus’s indignation towards the system ends up being the tragic flaw that leads to his demise. The ending blew my mind, seamlessly relating back to the film’s opening voiceover and its caveat about how the smallest mistakes that can lead to one’s end.
I commend Logan Lerman for pulling off the contained emotions of such an intense character. Indignation is a truly riveting film from start to finish.