Michael Almereyda directs Experimenter, a fascinating and clever 2015 film based on the experiments and life of social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Almereyda wrote the screenplay, too, and handles the picture with a sort of whimsy. Sometimes, things are surreal but on-the-nose. He has an elephant follow the lead character down a hallway, for instance. Other times, there’s soft subtlety.
Perhaps the greatest component is how Almereyda has Peter Sarsgaard’s Milgram break the fourth wall. He speaks to the audience as though he’s delivering a rather playful lecture, only he even shatters the confines of his own life and wanders outside time. At one point, Milgram proclaims that he dies in 1984. All the while and to this very day, the controversy of his experiments remains.
The film opens with Sarsgaard’s Milgram and his colleagues (John Palladino and Jim Gaffigan) studying the ideas of obedience and authority. They select two people, one of whom is an unsuspecting member of the general populace, and assign them roles as “teacher” and “learner.” “The “learner” (Gaffigan) is put in another room and hooked up to an electroshock machine.
The “teacher” then has to ask the “learner” various questions. When the “learner” gets a question wrong, the “teacher” delivers an electric shock by flicking a switch. The shocks increase as the experiment goes along. Milgram and his team subsequently discover that almost everyone goes through with the experiment until the bitter end.
The experiment, done at Yale, forms the general thrust of Experimenter. Almereyda is also interested in Milgram’s personal life, however, and that gives the picture more heft. He marries Sasha (Winona Ryder) and goes through the aftermath of the experiment with her at his side. He endures the backlash, such as it is, and learns even more about human nature.
It’s in this portion that Experimenter really lays down some serious truth. People were naturally uncomfortable with the results of the Milgram experiments and they didn’t want to think that they could be so totally submissive to authority figures, so they lashed out at the experiment itself and at Milgram. He had deceived him. He had given them the shock. They were the victims of cruel science.
This is, of course, consistent with human nature. Most people defy any attempts at self-examination, especially if the results aren’t pretty. If one is convicted of having the capacity to harm another under orders of authority, one will go through a number of rhetorical hoops to avoid facing that fact head-on. There’s nothing worse than feeling bad about oneself, after all.
But Milgram boldly plunged through the worthless façade and faced the full and shameful truth. Almereyda, to his credit, pushes the right buttons and doesn’t flinch when the shocks kick in. Given the context of the Milgram experiment, with its basis in the “just following orders” mentality that bolstered the atrocities of the Holocaust, there’s some rather eerie ground underfoot.
Experimenter stays the course and that’s an admirable thing. Sarsgaard plays Milgram with as much pop and sizzle as is possible given the circumstances, talking to the camera at length even as he walks to his car or traverses the halls of Yale with the (literal) elephant in the room lumbering over his shoulder. He has just the trace of a smirk, whether from disbelief or horror. And who wouldn’t?
What’s more, Sarsgaard’s Milgram seems to be omniscient. Maybe that’s the only way to stay detached. He talks about a daughter not being born yet and, as stated, mentions his death. He doesn’t preface this fact with a spoiler alert, by the way, so audiences are warned that Milgram blows the end of the movie before it’s time.
Using some snazzy back projection shots and a number of wicked two-shots to detail the raft of subjects, Experimenter fiddles with its own experiment to the right degree. And thanks to the ethical questions it raises, it maintains speed and potency as a thoughtful and cheeky sort of film. It’s a rare beast in the era of feel-good swill. And that’s a wonderful, electric thing indeed.