I’ve read and enjoyed a lot of Philip Roth’s work, although not recently enough that it’s made its way into this blog. So I was interested to see how his work would translate to the screen in Indignation.
Indignation tells the story of Marcus Messner, a young Jewish student at a university in Winesburg College in Ohio. While we follow him in his first year of university, he is narrating his own quest to discover exactly what decision it was that led him to his death.
It’s mildly interesting, but not gripping. Worth it if you enjoyed the novel, but probably not otherwise.
SPOILERS FROM HERE
Marcus is a gifted, determined student, who goes on a date with a young woman named Olivia Hutton. On their first date, she gives him a blowjob, which, as it’s his first one, is a mindblowing experience. From there, the plot meanders its way through Messners frustration with the archaisms of a 1951 university with its chapel requirements, and … not much else, really.
I found myself wondering, halfway through, what the actual story was. What was Messner trying to achieve? Or would he just bounce between random scenes throughout the entire movie?
The movie makes sense, of course, as an attempt by Messner to understand what it is that has lead him to his death on the battlefield in Korea. The most direct causal link is that he’s been expelled (and therefore again subject to the draft), because he paid someone else to go to chapel for him.
Because there is no clear sense of agency for the protagonist, it’s hard for the movie to motivate the viewer. If something happens, should we feel happy, or sad? Does it get Messner closer to, or further from his goal? We don’t know.
It’s also interesting to watch the piece, because in some way it feels like an elegy for a different time. When universities might still require students to attend chapel, and when that was the most prominent point of rebellion for students. As students today live in a world that includes both trigger warnings and protests against police killings, it’s hard to look back at that time without the context looming large.