When it comes to directorial debuts from filmmakers who have primarily worked in a different field in the industry, there’s often a tendency in criticism to try and pinpoint a connective tissue between films. Or, rather, that’s the case with some field switches, anyway. It doesn’t happen so much with writers like Charlie Kaufman switching to the directing chair, because the change-up doesn’t necessarily feel like a shake-up; they’ll mostly end up directing their own scripts, maintaining the “brand” or auteurist stamp they’ve already built up. Furthermore, new directors coming from a technical department like special effects (as is not too uncommon with sci-fi or horror films) don’t tend to receive this treatment. Where it tends to happen most is with actors making their directorial debuts. One may struggle to find a review of Lost River that doesn’t discuss Ryan Gosling’s prior collaborations with Nicolas Winding Refn, or one for Keanu Reeves’ martial arts film Man of Tai Chi that doesn’t allude to his work in The Matrix trilogy.
The habit is more rare when it comes to producers. In fact, it’s more common when directors make the jump to producing. People will always try to read something into what, say, Terrence Malick will produce, drawing a connection between the interests of Malick’s own films and what he would find of interest in that of any talent.
With the Philip Roth adaptation Indignation, there’s an interesting case where the directorial debut comes from a multi-hyphenate filmmaker with an extensive background in numerous fields; a jack of all trades and a master of several. James Schamus is not only known as a producer, but also as a screenwriter, a lecturer on both film and philosophy, and author of a study of Carl Theodor Dreyer. The trump in his hand of cards is that he was, until fairly recently, the CEO of Focus Features, the division of NBCUniversal that, until a 2015 shake-up (more genre focus), was arguably the big daddy when it came to independent and art house cinema that flirted with the mainstream. In the 2000s, titles like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Lost in Translation, Brokeback Mountain and Brick were just a few of the enduring works that came from the company. So, the inclination to find connective tissue is a little more challenging through the sheer quantity of wide-ranging features associated with Schamus. But one filmmaker sticks out among all the producer or Focus Features credits, and it’s the director Schamus has had the most collaborative relationship with: Ang Lee.
Up until Life of Pi, and with the exception of Sense and Sensibility, Schamus had story or screenwriter credits on all of Lee’s feature efforts as a director, from the early days of The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman to the action movie duo of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk. Is this to say that Indignation stands as something of obvious thematic pairing with Lee’s interests? No, but what the two men share as directors is an imbuement of classicism in virtually all facets of the production, from general aesthetic to story concerns, with a predilection for extensive dialogue scenes as means of conveying ideologies, but retaining a sensitive and complex approach to characters at the same time.
Though the two films are set in different periods of American history, the Lee film Indignation reminded me of the 1970s-set The Ice Storm, mainly in its sensitive handling of young people coming to terms with new notions of morality and sexuality, while also working as a wistful reflection on an era quite different from the one in which it has been made. The year 1951 is the setting of Indignation, which follows Newark-bred Jewish teen Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman) enrolling in a Lutheran college across the country in Ohio. In doing so, he successfully avoids the feared draft for the Korean War, which has already claimed the lives of many young men back in his home town. This is but one of a number of issues provoking various emotional implosions from this otherwise straight-laced young man, who is determined to just succeed with his studies and maintain a degree of moral soundness.
Two other sources of trials and tribulations come by way of his burgeoning romance with much-gossiped-about, troubled classmate Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). Her forwardness, when it comes to physical intimacy, shakes up Marcus’ preconceived, inexperienced notions of sexuality, as well as with the distinct indignation provoked by various disputes with the college’s Dean Cauldwell (Tracy Letts). In deviating from the prospect of joining the small-time family butchering business to go off to college — away from the throes of vigilantly paranoid parental influences — Marcus initially feels like he’s making a break for a more open environment. But the rural Ohio university proves just as much of a trap, with its mandatory sermons and campus social groupings as rigidly compartmentalised as the library books the lad must organise in his similarly mandatory campus job.
Behavioural deviation makes both him and Olivia stand out as disruptive forces, despite neither having any inclination towards deliberate antagonising of the mini-society they find themselves struggling in and struggling to explain themselves in. Olivia’s firecracker personality, history with hospitalisation and sexual frankness makes her the subject of hearsay, while in Marcus’ case, it’s his apparent lack of ability to resolve seemingly simple conflicts that perturbs the Dean. Marcus requests a change of accommodation from his Jewish housing because he cannot tolerate his roommates in order to focus on his work, while also voicing a move towards atheism that disrupts the whole process of easily compartmentalising students by creed in an institution that, he argues, imposes Christianity on collegiate life in an oppressive fashion.
Where Indignation deviates a little from its otherwise classical trappings is in its structure. The film revolves around a centrepiece conversation between Marcus and the Dean; a hyper-articulate ideological sparring that escalates in intensity over the course of roughly 15 minutes, maintaining nuance despite the visible, growing frustration of the young man flustered by seemingly every aspect of being interrogated by a frustratingly calm and collected figure of authority. This structural conceit reminded me, in a flattering way, of Steve McQueen’s Hunger, which similarly revolves around a mid-film ideological discussion between IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham) visiting him in prison. Though the two films otherwise have little in common, Schamus avoids McQueen’s proclivity towards long takes for his heated chat, instead favouring impartiality in the cinematography that refrains from visually overemphasising what the viewer can infer from the dialogue of fury from the protagonist.
As that protagonist, Logan Lerman delivers his most compelling, complex performance to date, pulling off a tricky blend of endearing charm and simmering resentment, without letting the switch between emotional registers come across as unnatural, nor over-doing Marcus’ righteousness in a way that risks it losing sympathy. Letts and Gadon are equally impressive as the most major supporting players, the latter avoiding initial fears of Olivia being a typical, objectified love interest for this sort of tale (a Manic Period Piece Girl, if you will) to deliver a character and performance that convey arguably even more about the film’s theme of developmental conditioning than that of its ostensible lead. With Schamus providing this gut-wrenching melodrama that has such fire in its diatribe against conformity and anti-intellectualism, it helps to have what feels like real humans wading through the flames, and with Lerman and Gadon, he has just the right people to help break your heart.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.