Since Philip Roth's sudden retirement announcement a few years ago, there has been a flurry of activity to film his literary work. Besides Indignation, the anticipated adaptation of Roth's classic American Pastoral, directed and starring Ewan McGregor, is opening next month. Indignation, like past Roth adaptations, elides over much of the source material avoiding the pratfalls of overcomplexity. An enthralling complexity on the page, but shambolic when crammed into a two hour cinematic window.
Philosopher Louis Althusser described the method that a society subsumes its subjects into its ideology, or the mainstream, through social interactions, institutions, and traditions, calling it interpellation. It's a language, and set gestures and rituals that signals to individuals that they are all part of the same society, a method of collective conformity. Capturing Roth's distinctive intensity, director James Schamus thoughtfully crafts a study of the consequences of resistance against being interpellated in early '50s America. Shot slowly and methodically, the film peers into the past with a comically grim lens.
Logan Lerman plays Marcus Messner, an auspiciously gifted high school scholar in postwar Newark, New Jersey. His talents win him a scholarship to a college in rural Ohio, and in a reminder of parlous times, it gets Marcus off the hook of being drafted and sent to Korea. A growing list of war dead in the close-knit Jewish community—including Marcus' cousin—has left his parents both unnerved and grateful their boy has seemingly been saved from a similar fate.
In spite of Marcus' prodigious talents and the praise heaped upon him, everyone in Marcus' life pushes him to belong somewhere. His father and roommates are bewildered that a young Jewish man of such potential and promise balks at joining the campus' sole Jewish fraternity. The self-possessed dean of the college insists Marcus attend weekly chapel service, even in the face of Marcus' citations of Bertrand Russell in his spirited affirmation of atheism.
The thing is, Marcus doesn't want to join any fraternity and mandatory attendance at a religious service goes against his entire being. In fact, Marcus is not interested in much unrelated to his literary studies and one Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), whose bare ankles and WASPy countenance Marcus first notices at the library. But even the companionship of a confidante is precarious in this world. The relationship is besieged by biting social judgements with lasting consequences.
Indignation shares many of the same themes as the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Both main characters are beset by forces way beyond their control, both insist they've done nothing wrong nor harmed anyone. But where Serious Man's Larry Gopnik is fully interpellated, belonging to the synagogue and respected in the community, Marcus Messner wants nothing to do with any of it. Marcus wants to forge his own ideology, to master his own destiny. Something '50s America was not quite ready to accept.