Next up on Did You Have Any Idea This Was Made And Released? is the confident and excellent 50’s-set drama Indignation, from producer/writer/scholar James Schamus, who made his directorial debut with this adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel of the same name. Schamus has, for the last 20 years, been Ang Lee’s main creative collaborator, and also found time to run Focus Features; it’s no surprise that he’d choose an intelligent and classy piece of material such as this for his first foray into full-fledged feature filmmaking. Logan Lerman, again excellent after strong work in Perks of Being a Wallflower and Fury, makes a commanding impression as a young Jewish college student, the son of a Kosher butcher, who leaves New Jersey for Ohio, and immediately has problems settling into campus life. The early scenes project a wonderful sense of time and place, which then fluidly leads into the rest of the story.
His bumbling roommates aren’t a good fit, he’s got an overbearing Dean of students (played by the tremendous and invaluable Tracy Letts), his parents are a mess, the Korean War is escalating, and he catches the eye of a sexually forward and potentially troubled female student played by Sarah Gadon (very pretty but a little dramatically flat) who changes his life forever after a very saucy (especially for the time) first date. The societal humor that’s on display during the various sexual entanglements is often very, very funny. But just you wait until the film’s dramatic centerpiece arrives in the form of a one on one confrontation between Lerman and Letts; this staggering bit of acting between the two thespians runs for close to 15 minutes and becomes nearly overwhelming by its conclusion. With rat-a-tat dialogue and the two performers heatedly reciting their lines, it’s hilarious, smart, stinging, and hugely entertaining to observe.
So why didn’t Indignation, which was “released” by Roadside Attractions and Summit Entertainment in the head-scratching summer movie season last year after being acquired at Sundance, have any sort of visibility in the marketplace? Beyond the fact that it’s a film that would likely appeal to a narrow audience (especially these days), I can’t figure out why the distributors didn’t even TRY to do something with this strong piece of cinema; it wasn’t even worth a fall release date as opposed to be being buried in late July? Because it should have grossed way more than the $3 million domestic that it did, and it’s much better than its 82% Rottentomatoes score (if the film opened with the Marvel logo it’d be in the 90’s). This should have been aggressively marketed to upscale audiences, with a simultaneous push onto VOD platforms at the time of its theatrical release.
All of the craft contributions were splendid, with period-fantastic art direction and production design by Derek Wang and Inbal Weinberg respectively; painterly cinematography that stressed dark hues from Kelly Reichardt’s favored director of photography Christopher Blauvelt; patient editing by Andrew Marcus which allowed various scenes to unfold at a smart pace for maximum dramatic impact; and a superb musical score by Jay Wadley that tied everything together. But because the film didn’t have massive stars and nobody showed up in superhero spandex, nobody saw it, or has even heard of it. Schamus demonstrated a natural hand as a storyteller with this project, and I hope it’s financial failure doesn’t dissuade him from working again in the helmer’s chair. The title of this film is very fitting for the themes explored within the emotionally tricky narrative, and for how I feel about the direction that cinema in general is currently headed.