Philip Roth’s work doesn’t seem to lend well to screen adaptations (see, for instance, Ewan McGregor’s disastrous attempt to adapt American Pastoral in his directorial debut), so colour me surprised when Indignation received good ink—and from another first-time director, too. James Schamus has worked as a producer and screenwriter, and probably because of that résumé seems to have grasped the art of directing without batting an eye. Indignation is handsomely mounted, an old-school picture without pretensions of being anything else, and still it breathes and heaves with all the pinpoint accuracy and dribbling irony of Roth’s pen. Schamus understands that this is a character piece, and I loved the rich investment he gives to this ensemble. Yes, it’s primarily Logan Lerman’s film, and Lerman is really great here, but we also have Sarah Gadon as an inscrutable vixen who haunts the edges of the frame; Tracy Letts as a sanctimonious university dean who goes toe-to-toe with Lerman on several occasions; and Linda Emond as Lerman’s resilient mother, whose glances can cut to the heart of the matter in an instant. This is a sophisticated ensemble that clicks right away, and it matches the sophistication and elegance that Schamus imbues the film with.
I can’t think of anything to complain about, really. At first it’s a little jarring to follow a plot that rings around an unsolicited blowjob, yet the more we come to know Marcus, the more his reaction makes total sense. A tale of blemishes that are not skin-deep, and where too much bluster will surely scald. It doesn’t lead to a likeable group of people, and I didn’t cry over their little tragedies, but damn does Roth know how to write them. And Schamus makes them real for us with enough sensitivity to keep us engrossed the whole way through.