Between 1930 and 1968, Hollywood operated under the auspices of the Motion Picture Production Code. Ostensibly an attempt to keep movies ‘clean’ after the censorial free-for-all of the Silent Era, the pervasively Catholic code imposed a detailed list of moral strictures on filmmakers, for instance: no nudity, no profanity, no sexual perversion or reference to sexual hygiene, no disrespect shown towards police and clergy, and no sedition, seduction, or general gruesomeness. If you ever watched a Hollywood movie made between the ‘30s and early ‘60s and wonder why the bad guy never gets away with it – it’s because it wasn’t morally acceptable.
The lasting legacy of the Production Code is such that we tend to think of inhabitants of the 1950’s as sexless automatons content inside white picket cages. Naturally, life was never so black and white as its overwhelming depiction; only retroactively do we see on-screen depictions of 1950’s America in the kind of holistic visage that was never possible at the time.
Indignation is one such film. Set against the looming spectre of the Korean War, it deals with religious ostracism, conformity, carnal awakening, familial disparity… and includes several depictions of post-sexual hygienic practice.
Based on Phillip Roth’s novel of the same name, Indignation tells the story of Jewish student Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman), the son of a working-class New Jersey butcher who evades the Korean draft by going to an overwhelmingly Christian college in Ohio. A straight-A student, he nevertheless struggles to fit in socially with his peers, and butts heads with Caudwell (Tracy Letts), the college Dean whose spurious arguments seem rationally inept to his indignant, objective point of views. However, what will determine both his immediate future and the remainder of his life is a brief sexual encounter with the beautiful Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). While Marcus is left mystified by his sexual awakening and Olivia struggles on the verge of nervous collapse, their politely tumultuous liaison proves invariably tragic to all concerned.
Indignation is the directorial debut of screenwriter James Schamus, whose previous credits include lauded films such as The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Indignation is not so much a thematic departure from his aforementioned work with Ang Lee as it is a continuation of the themes –namely, sexual repression and awakening- toward which he seemingly gravitates. Unexpectedly, being the work of a screenwriter and because the film is based on a literary source (Philip Roth’s novel of the same name), Schamus’ directorial aesthetic tends towards staid scenes of long, buoyant dialogue between characters, which is where he emphasises not only his structural exposition, but where he exposes the beating, wounded hearts of his characters.
This is the reality of 1950’s white-bred America: bitterly sour, where there are no happy endings or arbitrary sing-a-longs to signal a reality too good, too wholesome to ever be true. Instead, Indignation is the sad truth of how unnaturally conforming to situations that sit at odds with one’s self leads only to emotional suffocation or worse. It is a film about the inability to communicate effectively both with the ones we love, and with the alien world around us. This is the essence of the film, and it applies as much to any time context as to a 1950’s retrospective, or it would not be half as poignant as it is.
Admittedly, it threatens at first to become a torpid Dead Poets Society re-tread, but that has more to do with the setting than anything else. As it progresses, the movie becomes something more specific and ethereal than what it immediately suggests. Throughout, the acting is superlative, and though Lerman is excellent, it is Gadon who proves the standout. While Lerman’s character requires a fair deal of bluster, it is Gadon’s Olivia -being slowly, inwardly crushed by the world around her without letting on- that requires greater subtlety.
Indignation may not score points for originality; the story, at face value, looks relatively underwhelming and not unlike others you may have seen before. It is in the execution, however, of its themes and its compassionate humanism, where it succeeds, and where it proves utterly heartbreaking. Take your tissues.
THE REEL SCORE: 8/10