A sense of dread hangs over Indignation, the first feature directed by James Schamus, former CEO of Focus Features. Schamus produced—and sometimes had a hand in writing—a litany of great films, working with Ang Lee on the likes of Crouching Tiger,Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain. His directorial debut, based on a 2008 Philip Roth novel, is exquisite to behold, carefully recreating its era (the action primarily takes place in 1951) and offering some pretty period costumes. But this is a bleak film, one whose undercurrent of morbidity stems any romanticization of the past. That ominousness can at times be suffocating, as the action barrels toward a conclusion it insists on foreshadowing. Light summer fare this is not.
The film’s more challenging and occasionally frustrating elements mirror those of its hero, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman). Marcus, the son of a Jewish butcher in drearily lit Newark, New Jersey, has avoided being shipped off to the Korean War by getting a scholarship to a liberal arts college in Ohio. An early punchline comes when Marcus is asked by the grieving mother of a classmate killed in combat how he’ll keep kosher in the midwestern state. It quickly becomes clear that Marcus is not especially concerned with avoiding treif as he digs into some escargot on his first date with the striking Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). A prickly figure who initially strives to keep to himself, Marcus can’t resist the starlet glamour of Olivia, and it’s through her that Marcus begins to shed his guarded armor, exposing a budding firebrand. He’s not a good Jewish boy trying to please his parents. He’s a fiercely independent atheist.