Sitting in a dark theater while watching Experimenter is a peculiar exercise. The latest film from director Michael Almereyda faithfully recreates the infamous obedience tests by Stanley Milgram. Yet, between all the gnashing of teeth and purported electric shocks, viewers come under the distinct impression that they too are in a digital Petri dish with a filmmaker’s precise microscope trained on them for every passing second.
The most intriguing part of this sensation is that I’m not sure if it’s even intentional—but I suspect it’s a compliment.
Dr. Milgram made historic waves in the psychological and sociological fields more than 50 years ago, and they’re still rolling to this day. Well known by any person who took an “Intro to Psych” course, Milgram proved an uncomfortable truth about human nature: when presented with the slightest pressure of mild authority, humans, even from the Greatest Generation of Americans, tended to malleably bend in compliance with orders—to the point where it might mean inflicting pain on others.
This is demonstrated in a film that repeatedly puts you through the experiment both as a subject and later as a scientific observer. Subjects would begin the test by believing they controlled the ability to electroshock other participants for answering word association games incorrectly (the other participant is actually an actor who is not being tortured). And soon they would be given the implicit choice to get up and leave as the shocks supposedly became higher in intensity or comply with researchers by continuing the experiment despite screams on the other side of the wall. Sixty-five percent of participants saw the experiment through to the violent end, despite evident anxiety or concern on their faces. They were simply following orders.
These tests were highly controversial at the time, even as they led Milgram to a brief stint as an associate professor at Harvard. And they are still challenged regularly today in spite of their cornerstone status for comprehending malevolence after every mass-committed atrocity in the last half-century.
Experimenter doesn’t challenge the tests so much as hint at the underlying life of the man who concocted them. That doctor is played with a special degree of introverted pomp by Peter Sarsgaard. In one of the better performances of his career, Sarsgaard is all hunched shoulders and thinly contained frustration.
It would be far too extreme to suggest that Milgram thought himself superior than his fellow man—at least no more than any other tenured academic—but he was certainly exhausted by our species’ susceptibility. Being the child of Jewish parents who were almost rounded up by the Nazis tends to have that affect.
However, the movie that Sarsgaard’s Milgram inhabits is at its best when it subverts biographic expectations and instead acts like a cinematic extrapolation of Milgram’s many other tests. Indeed, they were so numerous that his undergrads in ’63 didn’t believe him or the radio when he reported that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
Of course, the most prescient test is the one that opens the film: where he proved a nasty point about society and rather unintentionally discovered a distressing aspect of human psychology for about two-thirds of his participants. These sequences occur in sturdy, grounded environments, which are complemented by the gray lab coats.
Much of the rest of the movie is also focused on Milgram’s fairly healthy love story with his wife Sasha Milgram (Winona Ryder). Both the characters and the actors playing them make for a solid team, providing the other with plenty of room. Also, while this is most definitely Sarsgaard’s film, it is always refreshing to see Winona Ryder actually cast in roles of greater importance than being Spock’s mother.
Likewise, the supporting cast of subjects and scientists is a rotating list of unsung thespians getting memorable cameos, including John Leguizamo, Anthony Edwards, Anton Yelchin, and Jim Gaffigan.
However, Milgram’s life is perhaps too well-adjusted for such a strange subject. He goes from Harvard to CUNY, and then grows a beard while becoming a minor 1970s celebrity with the publication of his book. But never once does his lifetime’s experiences (as at least presented in this film) feature a sense of revelation or dramatic catharsis, especially for him. In fact, this might be why Almereyda so frequently abandons reality for a surrealism whose purpose remains the film’s most elusive and alluring element.
Narratively speaking, Experimenter loses steam in the latter portions of the movie after Milgram’s greatest successes are behind him, but unlike various other biopics, Almereyda becomes more outlandish in his choices with every passing frame. From the beginning, Sarsgaard frequently breaks the fourth wall to narrate the picture.
But whether out of budget constraints or artistic license, other oddities occur: like an elephant repeatedly appearing onscreen, aimlessly meandering the halls of Milgram’s early Yale research facility while Sarsgaard continues to speak into the camera–literally not noticing the giant tusked mammal in the room. Similarly, whenever Stanley and Sasha leave their offices or homes, the world around them turns into black and white rear-screen projection, suggesting the artificiality of Milgram’s everyday concerns.
This visual ouroboros is complete when Milgram interacts with the awful television movie cast hired by CBS to reenact his life in the late 1970s. Kellan Lutz plays William Shatner, who played a version of Milgram for the teleplay, and Dennis Haysbert is Ossie Davis.
The artifice is so knowingly bizarre, and such a taboo for a film that purports it’s a true story, that the result is a movie with a subject that is harrowingly, and often uncomfortably, real—but a tone and aesthetic that is as detached from its world as Milgram’s critics accused him of being divorced from the ethics of our own.
Whether this effect was purely a creative example at cost cutting or an attempt to turn an audience into an unwitting subject remains unclear. Either way, the film consequently lingers in the mind like the distorted reflections from a shattered vanity manner. And that image is far more interesting than the otherwise unremarkable image we might have gleaned. More curiosity than epiphany, there is still something provocative about being both a film’s vigilant observer and its unknowing guinea pig.
Experimenter is now playing at the New York Film Festival and opens on Oct. 16.