Philip Roth’s novels have been notoriously difficult to adapt to the big screen. And that’s not just because his work brims with sexual behavior that’s startling even in an age when stuff like Fifty Shades of Grey is considered blockbuster entertainment; despite his confessional style, his prose is steely stuff. It’s deeply literary, dense, and close to impenetrable. His is a world where a character might say something like, “Where better for a Bertram Flusser to luxuriate without abatement in an abundance of rebuke?”
That’s a mouthful. And in Indignation, characters speak extemporaneously as if they’ve rehearsed every syllable. The year is 1951 and the Korean War is in full swing. In order to avoid the draft, Marcus Messner leaves his Jewish enclave in Newark, New Jersey for a WASP-y, provincial campus in Winesburg, Ohio. There, he meets a shiksa siren straight out of Sylvia Plath who leads him headfirst into a maelstrom of sexual, political, and religious anxiety.
Off the bat, the deluge of literary references and posturing is startling, and the images have a stately texture that reinforces the movie’s clinical remove. It’s a picture that announces its themes (assimilation, hypocrisy, pragmatism) with a cudgel, and there’s a rigidness to the sweaty emotions that usually accompany these kind of arguments—a sense of cosmic alignment to every sentence. In other words, Indignation doesn’t take place in any reality I’ve ever witnessed.
But reality and melodrama have never partnered well. Throughout the 1950s, Douglas Sirk made a string of outrageous weepies that dared audiences to square the earnest with the absurd. Indignation may have more serious stuff on its mind than, say, Magnificient Obsession, but the two are undeniably linked. Beyond the postwar setting, there’s an overwrought sensibility to these universes that consistently threatens to veer into camp. With only the slightest shift in tone, the cosmic retribution meted out here for a blow job would be bonkers. But James Schamus, Ang Lee’s longtime screenwriter and responsible for the simmering frostiness of The Ice Storm, is more even-keeled than Sirk, and there’s an austerity to his form and diction that undermine the raging hormones and adolescent righteousness raging beneath the surface. It’s soap without the suds—a sturdy, safely contained box of dynamite.
It’s all so literal and literary that it’d be laughable if it weren’t so defiantly sincere. And after a certain point, the movie coheres around its stilted, novelistic tics and the whole thing becomes a smart and smartly composed exercise in emotional abstraction and a highbrow take on middlebrow melodrama.
Whatever the movie lacks in formal fireworks is made up by Sarah Gadon, who seems to radiate light from within. She’s a natural movie star—a luminescent screen presence—and she ignites this heady cocktail with a magnetism it might otherwise lack.
Despite its scholarly aspirations, Indignation works best as melodramatic pulp. And as melodramatic pulp, it’s entrancing.
Indignation. Writen and directed by James Schamus. Starring Logan Lerman, Sarah Gadon, and Tracy Letts. Opens in Kansas City August 12, 2016.