Directed by: Michael Almereyda.
Written by: Michael Almereyda.
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard (Stanley Milgram), Winona Ryder (Sasha Menkin Milgram), John Palladino (John Williams), Jim Gaffigan (James McDonough), Anthony Edwards (Miller),Taryn Manning (Mrs. Lowe), Lori Singer (Florence Asch), Anton Yelchin (Rensaleer), John Leguizamo (Taylor), Kellan Lutz (William Shatner), Dennis Haysbert (Ossie Davis), Emily Tremaine (Shelia Jarcho), Josh Hamilton (Tom Shannon), Vondie Curtis-Hall (Curtis), Edoardo Ballerini (Paul Hollander), Tom Bateman (Cavett), Ned Eisenberg (Solomon Asch).
Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter is one of the strangest biopics I have ever seen – mainly because of how it askews the format of the biopic altogether. Its subject is Stanley Milgram, the famed social scientist who in the early 1960s conducted experiments that remain infamous. Descended from European Jews, Milgram wanted to test people’s conformity and how they cede power to authority. To do so, he brought in two “random” people – one of whom becomes the teacher, the other the learner. They sit in separate rooms next to each other, and are told that they can leave at any time. Then the learner has to memorize word pairs – and every time they get one wrong, they are given an electric shock – one that increases with each wrong answer. The learner isn’t real of course – he’s an actor hired by Milgram, and he has pre-recorded his pained reactions to being repeatedly shocked, and his pleas to stop the test. There is another man in the room with the learner – the supposed scientist conducting the experiment, who tells the teacher to keep going – even after no noise at all is coming from the next room. When the teacher complains, the scientist simply tells him that the experiment requires him to keep going. No one thought that the teacher would – but as Milgram’s experiment proved (and various others in the years since confirmed) 65% of people will keep pushing to the end – giving shocks that would kill, simply because a man in a white coat told them to.
The movie opens with one of these sessions – and is perfectly cast, having Anthony Edwards, the most normal of normal guys, play the “teacher”, and comedian Jim Gaffigan, as the learner. Almereyda doesn’t try to fool the audience with this first test – as soon as Edwards leaves the room Gaffigan is in, we see him pull out his equipment that has his pre-recorded reactions on them. Edwards is visibly shaken through the test, but he keeps going. The movie is filled with some fairly big actors in one scene roles as Milgram’s test subjects – John Leguizamo chain-smoking and sweating, but still pushing on, Anton Yelchin as a Dutch man who actually does stop, Taryn Manning as one of the first woman tested, etc. These are small, but crucial roles, and casting recognizable actors doesn’t become a distraction – but helps to get the precise reactions needed.
Milgram himself is played by Peter Sarsgaard, in a wonderfully deadpan performance as strange as the movie itself. The film is about Milgram’s experiments – of course, and their disturbing, and still relevant, data – but it’s also more than that – in many ways it is about movies themselves, with Sarsgaard’s Milgram as the director – sitting back, behind one-way mirrors, and watching the little plays he has set-up play out in front of him. Milgram often directly addresses the audience itself – walking down hallways at the various universities he worked at (twice, with an elephant walking behind him). He breaks into song at one point while talking about turning his work into a Broadway musical (it was turned into TV movie, starring William Shatner and Ossie Davis, memorably played by Kellan Lutz and Dennis Haysbert). Sarsgaard remains rather cool as Milgram – many of Milgram’s critics accused him of being cruel, and his experiment of being unethical, and he can give off that impression – even though the movie makes clear he does believe in the work. There are some scenes about Milgram’s life outside of his work – his wife is memorably played by Winona Ryder (who along with her work in the great HBO Miniseries Show Me a Hero, is finally getting good roles again) – but they basically confirm what a normal, somewhat boring guy Milgram was at home. Almereyda plays with these scenes as well, doing some interesting stylistic tricks – like a memorable car ride, with rear projection, that evokes the unease on many similar scenes in Hitchcock films.
Experimenter is an odd film – it doesn’t surprise me that the distributor is putting out on VOD at the same time it’s being released into theaters – how the hell you would market this thing is beyond me. It is disturbing, and yet humorous (but not laugh out loud funny) at the same time. Watching it, you feel like you are the subject of a Milgram experiment yourself, not quite knowing how to react. Why is the elephant there behind Milgram for example? Is it a simple metaphor about the elephant in the room that we’re not talking about – about how Milgram’s experiment basically concludes that the majority of us are capable of committing atrocities? Or has Almereyda simply put an elephant in the background as a test – will an audience accept something so bizarre and out of place as an elephant walking down the hallways of an American university simply because a filmmaker put it there? You tell me.