'Experimenter': Sundance Review
The Hollywood Reporter / 28 January 2015 Back to News
A biopic that feels more like a ride-along on an exploration of human nature, Michael Almereyda's Experimenter does offer a kind of portrait of controversial social scientist Stanley Milgram; but it's a portrait less interested in biographical milestones than in the questions Milgram had about why we behave the way we do. When we do see personal drama (a tenure denied, a denouncement on the sidewalk), it's almost exclusively in relation to the way Milgram investigated those questions and the answers he seemed to find. Technically puckish where appropriate but grounded by strong performances from Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, the film is not awards bait but makes some Big Thinker biographies that are look staid. It seems certain to be the deliberately fringe-dwelling auteur's most commercially successful film, and may be his most aesthetically satisfying one as well.
Readers who've heard of only one psychology experiment in their lives probably know Milgram's: In 1961's "obedience study," he found that the majority of subjects would give fellow volunteers horrible electric shocks if instructed to do so by an authority figure. The shocks weren't real, but the subjects didn't know that; the increasing discomfort of his obedient participants led many to call Milgram's ethics into question, and the experiment remains a campus debate-starter today.
Almereyda opens in the Yale lab where this experiment was conducted, with Milgram behind a two-way mirror, watching participants grow distressed as it escalates. They grimace and sigh each time they're instructed to "shock" a person whose (artificial) yelps of pain they hear from another room, but the scientist is expressionless. Sarsgaard's still face is an illustration of the Kuleshov effect; one's feelings about the merits of the experiment will determine whether one sees him as sadistic, sad, or detached.
As he explains while speaking directly to the camera, Milgram wants to understand how ordinary people can be coerced into unthinkable acts. He walks through a hallway addressing us, and as this Jewish man brings up his work's bearing on the Holocaust, an elephant lumbers through the office behind him. (The animal actually appears in the credits, as "Elephant in the Room.") Later, Almereyda will use intentionally fake-looking rear projection as scenery, especially in sequences involving authority figures and powerful institutions: The (conveniently budget-friendly) device uses the agreed-upon illusions of cinema to remind us of the artificiality of the powers that govern our lives.