James Schamus and Philip Roth’s Indignation deposits us in a “freshman year in college” milieu that’s almost completely antithetical to the university experience of anyone likely to see the film. The year is 1951 when Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) arrives on the campus of Winesburg College. A serious, remarkably “intense” lower-middle-class Jewish butcher’s son from Newark, New Jersey, straight-A student Marcus carries a weight on his shoulders before even sitting down in class.
The first member of his family to go away to school (he’s on academic scholarship), Marcus is relentlessly nagged by his hand-wringing parents (Danny Burstein, Linda Emond) to behave in a way that reflects credit on his family, the Jewish people in general, etc. Also to avoid flunking out and getting drafted into the Korean War, in which friends have already lost their lives. Also to try to meet a nice Jewish girl, marry, settle down, get a good job, and start a family. Other than that, no pressure whatsoever.
An incoming freshman of 1951 would be in his or her mid-eighties today, the same age as novelist Roth (Portnoy’s Complaint; The Human Stain), who evidently wrote Indignation as a not-so-veiled autobiographical fiction. Winesburg — a nod to Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story cycle, Winesburg, Ohio — seems an odd destination for a debate team champ like Marcus. Family friends wonder how he’s going to keep kosher in such a place. The boys wear argyle socks and brown sweaters; the coeds, flouncy dresses and sensible shoes. Every student, even an atheist like Marcus, is required to attend a Christian service in the chapel once a month. The dean, an owlish martinet named Caudwell (actor-playwright Tracy Letts), takes what seems like an obsessive interest in Marcus’ progress. And yet it’s fascinating to observe eighteen-year-olds so wrapped up in literature and philosophy. No beer pong, computer science majors, or hoodies in sight.
Marcus’ dorm roommates, two of the few Jews on campus (Ben Rosenfield, Philip Ettinger), are no help at all. But one day in the library a pretty blond coed catches his eye. Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), a rich, poised young woman who sports a scarred wrist from a suicide attempt, piques Marcus’ interest by bestowing a sexual favor on their first date. The gesture unnerves him for, well, the rest of his life. Olivia gets under his skin psychologically, in ways that only he can understand. By the time Olivia and Caudwell get through with Marcus they’ve turned him inside out.
What a remarkable combination: writer-producer-director Schamus, the former guiding light of Focus Features (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain); the ideas of author Roth, the Jewish-American literary dissector of the 20th-century American Dream; and three of the most perceptive screen acting performances of 2016, in Lerman, Gadon, and Letts. Try to take your eye off Gadon’s Olivia as she hovers over the equally vulnerable Marcus — it can’t be done. In her character, sensuality masks self-loathing. It’s the sensuality of a victim rather than a predator.
Hoping to escape the nerve-wracking expectations at home, Marcus experiences college as a tweed-jacketed jungle of manipulation and conformism, embodied in the saturnine figure of Letts’ Dean Caudwell. Their sparring in Caudwell’s wood-paneled cage is one of the year’s most unnerving screen sequences, scarier by far than any horror film. The playwright of Killer Joe and August: Osage County impersonates the most intimidating academic adversary of 1951 — we doubt that ogres of Caudwell’s description exist on campuses in 2016. Today, Caudwell would probably be a serial sex offender with a golden parachute.
Able and combative as he is, Marcus realizes a little too late that he’s on a conveyor belt. Instead of laughing his way through a series of drinking parties and sexcapades, this argumentative young man is playing for keeps with America at the height of its power. He can only lose. That’s a challenging formula for what at first appears to be a harmless college coming-of-age pic, but it puts Indignation near the top of the heap of this year’s deep-dish character studies, with special praise to Roth, Schamus, Lerman, Gadon, and Letts.