I spent an hour this morning writing the beginnings of a review of James Schamus‘s Indignation (Summit/Roadside. 7.29), which I saw last night. Many critics reviewed it during last January’s Sundance Film Festival, but I’ve been asked to hold until mid or late July. I don’t mind doing that, but I’d like to say something about those Sundance reactions.

If you scan the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic links, you’ll notice that most of the Sundance critics dropped to their knees. A smartly written adaptation of a 2008 Philip Roth novel, they all said. Intelligent, well performed, a somber but engaging theme, highly believable period (i.e., 1951) detail and atmosphere, a riveting second-act argument scene between Logan Lerman and Tracy Letts, etc.

But there’s one thing they didn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, and that’s how the film feels at the very end. And the way a film feels at the finale is, of course, always a measure of whether or not the ultimate fate of the characters seems fair or reasonable. 

Did a character fuck up badly and maybe hurt someone as a result? Then he or she deserves to feel some degree of pain at the finale. Has a character been falsely accused of something he/she didn’t do? Then his/her lack of guilt should be revealed at the end. He/she doesn’t have to end up rich or married to a movie star or elected President of the United States, but the record needs to be set straight to some extent.

If a more or less decent, fair-minded character is hit by lightning or a falling tree limb at the very end of a film and dies, that’s a completely shitty ending. “What did that happen for?”, the audience will say. No good reason, says the director or screenwriter. We just felt like killing him/her off because, you know, life can be cruel at times. Audience: “Well, fuck you then!”

A film doesn’t have to end happily or sadly or humorously or tragically, but you have to feel on some level that the characters have met with a fair and even-handed fate — that what happened or didn’t happen to them seems justified.

When George Kennedy‘s psychopathic asshole character was killed and eaten by guard dogs at the end of Michael Cimino‘s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, there was no disputing that he’d gotten what he deserved. Ditto when Elliot Gould‘s Phillip Marlowe shot Jim Bouton‘s Terry Lennox at the end of The Long Goodbye. I’ve noted a couple of times that the ending of The Godfather, Part II wan’t an upper but it felt justified. Michael Corleone has grown into a monster, and at the end he’s left all alone with his recollections of the idealistic youth he used to be and a realization that this younger version of himself has more or less died. Not a happy ending but a fair one. Corleone has accrued all the power but lost his soul.

Same thing with Paul Newman at the end of Hud. He takes a swing of beer and says “fuck it” but he’s no happy camper. He will have very little love or serenity in his life, and he knows it and so do we.

The ending of Indignation doesn’t feel justified. I’m not exaggerating when I say this. It really doesn’t. The two main characters, Marcus Messner (Lerman) and Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon), who meet and fall in love at an Ohio university in 1951, wind up engulfed in shit that they don’t even half-deserve, trust me. Their fates are so dark and punishing that…let me start over. I know that life can be horribly unfair at times and that the worst things can happen to the nicest people, but we’re not talking about life here but the scheme of good drama. If the characters in a film don’t meet with a fair fate, something feels wrong and audiences get angry.

So fuck the critical elite for having given this film a pass without noting how it makes you feel at the end, which is fucking awful. Yes, it’s an intelligent, well-made, nicely honed ’50s period drama about unhappy Jews (and as such is a cousin of Paul Mazursky‘s Enemies: A Love Story and Sidney Lumet‘s Daniel), and it was adapted and directed by a very bright and much-admired fellow. It feels a bit like a museum piece, true, but it’s fully watchable. But the ending (and I’m not going to explain until mid July) is grotesque.

This is why people don’t trust elite film critics. They don’t lay it on the line about how movies feel and more particularly about whether the payoff feels “right.” I do this all the time because that’s how I roll, but they don’t. Just saying.