Brokeback Mountain Producer James Schamus Makes His Directorial Debut With Indignation
August 17, 2016
Acclaimed producer James Schamus has left an indelible mark on modern film. Having produced nearly all of two-time Oscar-winner Ang Lee’s works since 1997’s The Ice Storm, he’s produced some of the great films of modern times. Now, Schamus has stepped into the role of director, and mightily so, adapting Philip Roth’s classic novel Indignation. Indignation is both haunting and deeply fascinating, making it one of this year’s best films.
Indignation follows Marcus (Logan Lerman), a Jewish college student enrolled in a primarily Christian university in 1951. Roomed with the only other Jewish students on campus, one is an awkward but seemingly normal man (Philip Ettinger) and the other is a supremely dramatic communist (Ben Rosenfield) whose obsession with the phonograph quickly begins to rub on Marcus. Although completely engulfed in his studies, Marcus soon falls in love with his classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), but as the many layers of Olivia’s personality are exposed, he begins to question her sanity.
At the center of Indignation is a supremely brilliant, 15-minute conversation between Marcus and the university’s Dean Caudwell (Tracy Letts). Exploring countless aspects of 1950s America from anti-Semitism to the rebirth of widespread atheism and beyond, it quickly evolves from a simple conversation to a tense battle of wits and utter hilarity. Searingly scripted and exceptionally performed, it’s one of the year’s best sequences and instantly establishes Schamus as a noteworthy director.
However, it’s the cast that makes the film truly soar. Lerman turns in his best performance yet, imbuing the scholarly Marcus with necessary grit, while Gadot offers fantastic support as Olivia, lending pathos to a determined but obviously troubled character. Its Letts that steals the film though, his Caudwell is a terrifying depiction of the traditional man of the 1950s that commands the audience’s attention. It’s one of 2016’s best performances yet and a likely contender come Oscar time.
The performances are also aided by the beautiful recreation of the era, by Christopher Blauvelt’s elegiac cinematography, and by Jay Wadley’s wonderfully subtle score. From Amy Roth’s excellent costume design to Derek Wang’s award-worthy art direction, the film is aesthetically perfect.
Having said that, Indignation is by no means a masterpiece. Its deliberate pace can feel overwhelming at times and it sadly forgoes its more compelling elements in favor of the romance in the third act. Fortunately, the picks back up in the final scene, a remarkable culmination of all that has come before it.
Despite a troublesome, leisurely pace and a third act that fails to understand what makes Indignation so engrossing, James Schamus’ directorial debut is a remarkably successful adaptation of a beloved novel.