Film Review: Indignation

by Mark Woodhouse

Rated M. Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, Tracy Letts. Directed by James Schamus.

Indignation is a film about something or other. I don’t really know. A kid goes off to college and meets a girl and fights with his dad and then fights with the Dean. That makes it sound like a bad 90’s comedy, but it isn’t. It’s meant to be independent cinema at it’s best. But it isn’t.

Marcus Messner (Lerman) is filled with indignation – hence the title. But he’s not indignant at anything in particular, it’s just that the world is against him. And really, he’s not even that indignant. He’s more falling in love with a girl he perhaps shouldn’t be. Is it a love story? I think it might be half a love story. Is it a coming-of-age story? It might want to be, but no one seems to come of age in any meaningful sense. Is it a cultural critique? From the media interviews, it thinks it is, but it certainly keeps it well-hidden.

Indignation wants to say something deeply philosophical about the nature of life and death. But it’s a swing and a miss. And it fails mainly because the film itself seems to forget that it’s trying to do this in the first place.

To be fair, the film is so character-driven that you might like it more than I did if you manage to connect with the characters better. But I was left confused and disappointed by the story and characters. But the cast, by-and-large, did pretty well with what they were given. Tracy Letts as Dean Caudwell is the highlight of the film. Sarah Gadon also puts in a good performance as Olivia. Lerman, though, is inconsistent as Marcus.

There are some other good things to say as well. It’s nicely shot, and the central scene, a fifteen-minute-plus conversation between Marcus and the Dean, is actually pretty good. It’s an achievement to even convince someone to finance your film with such a long conversation at the heart of the film, let alone carry it off without your audience completely losing interest.

In this scene, the Dean pokes and prods Marcus about a whole bunch of very personal things, including his religion. He has a scholarship from his synagogue, so why isn’t Judaism his ‘religious preference’? Because I’m an atheist, says Marcus. Logic and reason dispassionately dismisses the idea of a deity. “Praying, to me, is preposterous.” But the Dean wonders what can then give him spiritual sustenance.

Marcus assumes that people are ‘thinking beings’. He doesn’t need “spiritual sustenance.” But the rest of the film portrays Marcus to be more of a ‘desiring being’. His heart desires the pretty girl, the experience of her, loving parents, the title of ‘scholar’, the career in law that everyone thinks is awaiting him. And as these desires start to collide with each other, he doesn’t know what to think.

The Psalms know that we are ‘desiring beings’, not ‘thinking beings’. They speak of the desires of our hearts, the cares of our hearts, the troubles of our hearts, the gladness in our hearts. And with our hearts, we are to love God above all else. With Marcus and those around him, we see what can happen when our hearts love other things instead.

The Verdict: I thought Indignation might be one of those films that you need to dwell on for a while and mine for the gold that it assures you it’s got buried there. But it’s not. 2/5

Indignation releases in Australian cinemas later this week. It is already screening in the US and UK.

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