"An Unacceptable, Abhorrent Mess"
What You Need To Know:
INDIGNATION is shot well and has an emotionally devastating, extremely poignant ending. However, it’s eventually unsatisfying and sometimes shallow, confusing, misguided, and lewd. Also, the worldview is mixed, with a false, depressing view of an afterlife mixed with strong atheist attacks on religion and faith. Strangely, though, the protagonist’s angry atheism seems to be behind the bad decisions he makes. It’s hard to say whether the filmmakers themselves realize this contradiction. Whatever the case here, however, INDIGNATION is an unacceptable, ultimately abhorrent mess of a movie.
(PaPaPa, FRFR, HHH, AbAbAb, PCPC, Ho, LL, VV, S, AA, D, MM) Very strong mixed pagan worldview with an overt, but false view of the afterlife, mixed with some very strong atheist arguments against religion, God and Christianity by the protagonist, but the protagonist’s angry atheism also seems to lead to his moral, physical and psychological downfall (though the movie’s filmmakers may not believe this, because they seem confused), plus a rather politically correct portrayal of a Christian authority figure, who comes across pompous and harsh, but also sometimes perceptive, perhaps unintentionally so, and some homosexual implications; about seven obscenities, two profanities using Christ, three light profanities, and sick man vomits; brief strong violence includes two war scenes of soldiers during Korean War shooting at one another, including at least two deaths, and references to a past suicide attempt; implied oral sex and implied petting, plus brief kissing and a few vulgarities; no nudity; alcohol use and a reference to getting drunk and having to go off the wagon; smoking; and, protagonist cheats and deceives in one subplot but is caught, plus protagonist gets uncontrollably angry after being given the third degree by a pompous dean, and protagonist’s father becomes increasingly obsessive, neurotic, paranoid, and even mean.
INDIGNATION is based on a book by the acclaimed Anti-American, atheist novelist Phillip Roth, about a Jewish college student during the Korean War who butts heads with the dean of a Christian college in Ohio and has a lurid romance with a precocious but suicidal, though compassionate, young woman. INDIGNATION has a devastating tragic ending, but is sometimes shallow, confusing, misguided, and lewd, with a mixed Non-Christian worldview that includes atheist attacks on religion that ultimately don’t seem all that successful.
Narrated by the young protagonist in question, the movie opens with an elderly lady staring at some wallpaper in a retirement home while being attended by a female nurse. Cut to somewhere in Korea in 1951 or 1952 with an American soldier in an abandoned building trying to get away from a Chinese soldier. Cut again to the funeral of a Jewish soldier from Newark, New Jersey, attended by Marcus Messner and his parents.
Marcus has been working in his father’s butcher job during high school. Because of several young, local Jewish boys dying in Korea, his father has begun to worry constantly about his son’s possible death. Marcus can’t take his father’s obsession any more, so he decides to take his college scholarship from their synagogue and go to a straight-laced Christian college called Winesburg in Ohio (a name meant to evoke allusions to Sherwood Anderson’s acclaimed short story collection, WINESBURG, OHIO).
At the college, Marcus concentrates solely on his studies and wants little interaction with his two roommates. He even rejects overtures from the only Jewish fraternity on campus. However, he becomes smitten with a beautiful, rich blonde girl named Olivia.
On their first date, Marcus notices a small scar on Olivia’s wrist where she tried to commit suicide. Later, Olivia admits to Marcus she got drunk one night at her former college, and it made her too despondent, but that she got help, straightened out her life and is seeking redemption at Winesburg.
On the way back from their date, Olivia suddenly decides to pleasure Marcus in the fancy car he borrowed from his rich roommate. Marcus doesn’t know what to make of Olivia’s actions, so he avoids her the next few days. Olivia eventually confronts Marcus about it, asking him if he hates her. Marcus says, on the contrary, he likes her very much, he just doesn’t know what to make of her. She assures him she doesn’t do such things with other boys (rumors to the contrary) and only did what she did because she likes Marcus a lot.
So, Marcus and Olivia start seeing one another regularly. However, he starts having more friction with his two roommates. One fight gets so bad that Marcus decides to leave that dorm and go to the most isolated dorm on campus, a room that’s also one of the college’s most dilapidated dorm rooms.
These actions lead to a meeting with the pompous but perceptive Dean of Men, Dean Caudwell, who wants to know why Marcus is having trouble acclimating to the college’s social life. Marcus grows increasingly irritated by Caudwell’s third degree, which includes discussion of why Marcus felt the need to get away from his father. Marcus angrily lists all the “unjust” and annoying obligations his roommates, his fellow students and the school have placed on him, including the school’s requirement of students to attend so many days at Sunday chapel during their four years at Winesburg. Marcus says this last requirement offends his atheist sensibilities. His comments lead to an angry theological/philosophical debate between Marcus and the Dean. The debate ends with Marcus having a sudden bout of appendicitis, which puts him into the hospital.
At the hospital, Olivia visits Marcus. She brings a beautiful small bouquet of red and white roses (the roses come to represent the purity and the passion of their love). The romance between Marcus and Olivia grows, but, when his mother, Esther, meets Olivia during a visit to his hospital room, she notices the suicide scar on Olivia’s wrist. Shortly thereafter, Esther, asks Marcus to stop seeing Olivia. In return, she promises Marcus not to divorce his father, who’s become increasingly irritable, frightened, paranoid, and even mean, a shell of his former self.
Esther’s proposal leads to a series of bad decisions that ends in tragedy.
From the start of the movie, the protagonist’s narration explicitly states that the smallest decisions can have a profound effect on your life, even sometimes causing your death. Thus, the tragedies that ensue in INDIGNATION are a direct result of the bad decisions that Marcus, Olivia and Esther, but especially Marcus, make. In fact, one can argue that the tragedies Marcus suffers are really his own fault. Sadly, though, his bad decisions also have terrible consequences for Olivia. In one sense, his bad decisions, which include cheating and deceit, are an outgrowth of his atheism, not just his personality. Ironically, despite the atheist worldview of the original novel’s author, Phillip Roth, this movie version suggests a kind of afterlife, but the afterlife suggested seems almost as dire as the tragedies that ultimately befall Marcus and Olivia. In fact, it’s an afterlife where you lose touch with those you love and can only reminisce about your memories, including the mistakes you made and the circumstances that led to your demise.
Ultimately, despite a striking and extremely poignant ending, INDIGNATION left MOVIEGUIDE® unsatisfied and confused. Things are left unexplained, including the question why such a committed atheist as Marcus would want to attend a religious college in the first place. Maybe this is explained in the original novel, but it’s certainly not explained in the movie. Furthermore, when Marcus tells the dean how much he hates the Sunday services he must attend, why doesn’t Marcus start a movement on campus to let conscientious objectors like him find an appropriate alternative to attending church services? Or, why doesn’t Marcus just grin and bear the services, or even use them as an opportunity to learn more about Christianity and its doctrines, including how Christians use the Bible to live out their beliefs? Wouldn’t such knowledge help an atheist create better arguments against Christianity and the Bible, or is Marcus afraid (like many atheists in the real world) that such a study might result in his conversion?
In arguing with the dean, Marcus cites the infamous Bertrand Russell article, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” The filmmakers, however, seem unfamiliar with the various refutations of this article (see “Bertrand Russell’s View of Jesus Christ” at http://warrenapologeticscenter.com/lib/sitefiles/Bertrand_Russell_and_Jesus.pdf and “A critical Response to Bertrand Russell’s ‘Why I Am Not a Christian’” at https://loveacceptforgive.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/a-critical-response-to-why-i-am-not-a-christian-by-bertrand-russell.pdf). In this scene, however, the dean does get off one good zinger. When Marcus says Russell’s article refutes the moral argument for God, the dean replies that Russell is not really a reliable expert on morality since he’s been married and divorced three times himself (Russell married a fourth time in 1952). Of course, as the second article cited above notes, Russell’s brief attack on the moral argument for God actually offers no argument at all, including no factual evidence! The second article also notes that, nowhere in his essay does Russell consider the notion of free will, which has become a major part of the moral argument for God, especially when it comes to discussing ideas about Justice.
The upshot of all this is that INDIGNATION is an unsatisfying and sometimes shallow, confusing, misguided, and lewd piece of work. The movie may be shot well, with some interesting period details, but it’s an unacceptable, ultimately abhorrent mess of a movie with a mixed worldview. INDIGNATION ends up being rather unconvincing and irrational, if not silly.