That Winesburg College, the principal setting of “Indignation”, adapted by director James Schamus from Philip Roth’s novel, is fictional comes across entirely apropos. After all, this film is set in 1950s America, an era that very much looks a particular way – that is smiles, suburbia, religious piety, and conservatism – through the prism of time. And through this film’s unrelenting formal precision, so precise even costumes match the wallpaper, where you can imagine Schamus and cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt waiting for just the right light to twinkle through the campus trees, where even a flashback to the Korean War feels conspicuously airless, that particular portrait is crystallized. This is not to say that Schamus buys into it, of course. He does not so much shatter that image of the 1950s as simply allow pockets of resentment and unhappiness to burble up from below, always threatening to burst.
As “Indignation” opens, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) has come to Winesburg from New Jersey on account of being an exceptional student, but also to avoid fighting in the Korean War, where so many boys in his New Jersey hometown have gone to die, the ravages of his which his parents (Danny Burstein and Linda Edmond) seek to protect him at all costs. As such, Marcus maintains strict focus on his studies, ignoring overtures from a Jewish fraternity and shunning his roommates. Yet the film also uncovers how this single-mindedness stems just as much from Marcus’s own self-seriousness and satisfaction. Lerman plays straight to the latter with the haughty air of a freshman convinced he has already figured everything out, committed to a worldview that isn’t so much his own as worldviews borrowed from philosophical texts.
This worldview, such as turning up his nose at required chapel service given his preferred atheism, puts him directly in the sights of Dean Cauldwell (Tracy Letts). The Dean easily could have become a caricature, but Letts outfits him with a kind of arrogant amusement, as if he’s seen a number of Marcus’s in his time and can’t wait to let this kid’s own sense of self-worth dig his grave. This is seen in the film’s most mesmerizing sequence, a philosophical tete-a-tete between the two in which the Dean wants to ensure Marcus is fitting in, which is to say he wants Marcus to adhere to the proper beliefs, spiritual and otherwise. If Letts plays it like he’s about to burst into a grin, Lerman lets his character’s unhinged indignation arise. Essentially these are two know-it-all’s throwing down. It ends with Marcus throwing up, purportedly on account of appendicitis though you could have fooled me; it’s definitive proof that academia should be standardly equipped with vomit bags.
Though Dean Cauldwell and his rigid conditions eventually doom Marcus, the insistent freshman’s path of slow burning destruction is set in motion by Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), with whom Marcus becomes smitten one day in the library where she has draped her leg over the chair. It’s the one moment where I’d wished for Schamus to really lay it on thick, to really dial up Marcus’s sudden infatuation in the film’s aesthetic, carnal athenaeum knowledge. Alas, it’s not to be. But maybe I’m wrong, because if everything about Marcus is buttoned up, maybe his erotic fantasies would be buttoned up too. After all, upon commencing a relationship, one that begins with sexual pleasure in the front seat of a car and then graduates to even more public places, the love scenes are conveyed dispassionately, almost clinically, akin to the rest of stodgy aesthetic.
Marcus, who knows so much, knows nothing about sex and it terrifies him. This is why he pushes Olivia away. Still, even as he pushes her away, she keeps returning to his thoughts anyway, even after his mom shows up in the wake of his appendicitis, gets one look at Olivia and her scar and tells her son to send this girl packing. And, of course, the emergent irony is that for someone who refuses to be told by anyone else what to do, when his mom, who turns up in the wake of her son’s appendicitis, gets one look at the scar on Sarah’s arm and tells her son to stay away, he does exactly what mother demands.
We never really get to know Olivia outside of a few broad signifiers, and why would we? We are not hearing this story from point of view, but that of Marcus. And he see her as everyone else sees her – that is, a slut. Harsh word, yes, but Gadon carves out something else, allowing her rigid mannerisms that are almost always set to burst to convey a repressed attitude where she struggles to express what she really feels. Her being forced to stifle by what she supposes society wants, and probably does, is just as self-defeating as Marcus pushing her away, pushing everyone away, closing off, shutting down, diving into this studies rather than diving into himself. And so the real indignation here, the one that eventually does everyone in, is a frenzied unwillingness to let it all out.