Editor’s Notes: Experimenter is currently out in limited release.
It’s easy to be disillusioned by the hypnotic structure of Experimenter, the latest film from director Michael Almereyda. Spanning over a decade from social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s (Peter Sarsgaard) breakout experiment in 1961, this film mashes together formal elements of budget filmmaking and old-school stage design, while serving as partially a biopic of its subject and also a rigorous explanation of his famous work. There’s plenty of overlap between these approaches, to be sure, with the result being a formally goofy, yet engaging piece of work.
Although Experimenter takes the often abbreviated route through Milgram’s curriculum vitae, there’s still a lot to grasp, and plenty of subject matter left rather untouched . . .
In 1961, Milgram sets up an experiment which would later be the subject for his book Obedience to Authority, wherein a teacher asks a series of multiple choice questions of the learner, and deliver increasingly higher voltage shocks to the learner with each incorrect answer. This experiment would be the basis for more experimental research, Milgram’s career as an academic, and also a wave of controversy concerning the ethical impact of such an experiment on the subjects. With measured intensity, the teacher-learner experiment is played out in diligent detail over the film’s opening thirty minutes, only cutting away briefly to begin to establish Milgram’s relationship with his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder). From here, Experimenter follows the couple as they move from New Haven, to Boston, and to New York, highlighting several other key studies of Milgram’s along the way.
Although the film cuts to pivotal moments in Milgram’s life such as meeting Sasha for the first time, accompanied by Sarsgaard’s voiceover, I’m nervous to call this a fully biographical endeavor. Even as the flagship experiment is only revisited in other mediums (books, television interviews, and a terrible movie adaptation), it very clearly holds sway over the direction of the narrative, and Milgram’s life, far beyond his time at Yale running the study. Externally, his professional trajectory is dictated by the results of the study and its reception, and internally we learn more about his personal reasons for pursuing such a radical experiment in the first place (and why it’s hard for him to outrun the study). The film (and Sarsgaard’s narration) walks us through various academic and family milestones for Milgram, but they all fall under the umbrella of Milgram’s worldview, one that was particularly cemented by his ubiquitous study.
Still, the film is brazenly confident in what it wishes to accomplish, and has a distinctive retro style to boot.
The real opaque feeling of the movie, then, comes from its formal composition. What begins like a normal mid-budget historical drama soon starts to take its own creative liberties. Sarsgaard often breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly in the middle of a scene, a technique reportedly inspired by 20th century filmmakers Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling, who both employed the dramatic tactic decades ago, as well as the real-life Milgram who would often speak straight to the camera when filming his experiments. This tactic, combined with monochromatic backdrops used in driving scenes and later even to stage a conversation in a house do recall filmmaking techniques from cinema’s first century, and aptly give Almereyda’s feature an extra shot of uniqueness (even if it’s hard to really find a good thematic rationale for the backdrops).
Besides the ill-fated TV movie referenced in the film and another short film from 2009, it’s almost unbelievable that there have been so few attempts to dramatise Obedience to Authority and Milgram’s life. Although Experimenter takes the often abbreviated route through Milgram’s curriculum vitae, there’s still a lot to grasp, and plenty of subject matter left rather untouched such as how his experiments (and resulting mindset) affected his relationships with his kids and his wife. Still, the film is brazenly confident in what it wishes to accomplish, and has a distinctive retro style to boot. Experimenter may not be for everyone, but it’s a gnarly little film ferried along by a soundtrack that rightfully regulates the tone somewhere between unknown curiosity and even perhaps something more sinister.
Experimenter may not be for everyone, but it’s a gnarly little film ferried along by a soundtrack that rightfully regulates the tone somewhere between unknown curiosity and even perhaps something more sinister.