Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Thematic Material and brief Strong Language
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
Written by: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Edoardo Ballerini, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, John Palladino, Ned Eisenberg, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo & Kellan Lutz
If you’ve ever taken a Psychology class, then you’ve likely heard or read something about Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. Uncovering a dark side of human nature and generating a massive amount of controversy, Milgram’s findings still bring strong emotions and ponder unanswerable questions to this day. Some people claim that the experiments were skewed and Milgram “forced” people into a potentially traumatizing situation, while others believe that the man was a genius searching to uncover and fix some of humanity’s inherent flaws. I’m very much on the latter side of the fence and have been anticipating this biopic since it first premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Currently available on VOD outlets and in select theaters, EXPERIMENTER doesn’t disappoint in being a thoroughly fascinating and odd approach to one of the most important figures of modern psychology.
Stanley Milgram is a social psychologist who has undertaken an ambitious experiment. Over the course of one year, Milgram brings randomly selected volunteers into a teacher-student scenario in which they are instructed to give electric shocks to another person. What the participants don’t know is that the shocks aren’t really occurring and this whole scenario is an experiment on obedience to authority. Though Milgram expected some shocking results (no pun intended), he wasn’t prepared to find that a startling majority of volunteers willingly kept “shocking” the other participant (an actor in disguise). His research makes big waves in the intellectual community and Milgram becomes the subject of a whole lot of hatred. This movie moves through Milgram’s life including before, during, and after his controversial obedience experiments.
EXPERIMENTER is told in a non-linear fashion. Though we technically move through points of Milgram’s life in a somewhat chronological order, the script frequently inserts the good doctor himself addressing the viewer. The frequent fourth-wall-breaking Milgram is played wonderfully by Peter Sarsgaard. Sarsgaard breathes life into a person who might appear to have sociopathic tendencies to some viewers and deeply humanizes him. Milgram’s understanding of societal norms both place him as an intellectual figure to be admired and a tragic professor for whom some form of unwanted ignorance might be welcomed bliss. Other characters (real people in Milgram’s life) enter and exit the film without much warning, but there is one constant counterpart to Sarsgaard’s Milgram. This comes in the form of Winona Ryder as his wife, Sasha Milgram. Though the Sarsgaard’s psychologist receives far more screen time than her character, Ryder makes the most of her role as someone who deeply cares for Milgram in spite of his flaws.
Going back to the non-linear narrative, this was a fantastic approach to this story. Not only is a solid chunk of the film dedicated to Milgram performing the obedience experiments and the messy consequences that followed, but we also see other social experiments that he performed throughout his career. Unlike the notorious study he’s become well-known for, these other experiments are much more light-hearted and have a certain humorous feel to them. I was both being entertained and educated by this film to a point where I will now try to pick up on little social queues and body language of strangers around me on a daily basis. A simple study about a “familiar stranger” on a train is pretty fascinating stuff.
As informative and brilliant as most of this film is, EXPERIMENTER does get a bit too pretentious for its own good (sort of like Milgram himself). We see Sarsgaard walking down a hallway with an elephant following behind him, probably signifying the weight that all of these experiments are taking on him. We also see an introduction to some friends filmed in black-and-white to signify obvious banality of this trip. These artsy scenes were done with good intentions, but border on becoming a tad over-the-top. Still, there are distinct moments where Milgram unwittingly demonstrates the authority that he’s fighting so hard to analyze. These bits are pretty funny, especially seeing as they reveal Milgram is very much the same sort of animal as the rest of us.
All in all, EXPERIMENTER is a highly fascinating biopic that goes through the life of a man who became known for one hugely controversial study. This film remains true to the life of the renowned psychologist and is aided by a stellar performance from Peter Sarsgaard. Though it can get a little bogged down in its own funk during a couple of brief artsy scenes, EXPERIMENTER is simultaneously entertaining and educational. If you’re remotely interested in the subject matter, then you’re likely to be very happy with this film. I imagine that many future high school and college Psychology classes will be implementing EXPERIMENTER as required viewing.