In the early 1960s, researcher Stanley Milgram conducted a series of social experiments that are still discussed decades after his career and life. A test subject would ask a series of questions to a person sitting behind a wall separating them. If an incorrect answer was given, the subject was told to administer an electric shock to his co-participant. With each wrong answer, the shocks became more powerful. It was an experiment of massive deception and mental anguish – two narrative elements that just happen to play very well on screen. Writer-director Michael Almereyda knows this and uses the essence of the “Milgram experiments” to tell the social scientist’s story in very entertaining and unexpected ways.
Understandably, Almereyda places great focus on time spent in the lab; the longer we’re there, the more interesting Experimenter is. Each question asked by an unsuspecting volunteer carries an immediate tension, with Almereyda deftly juxtaposing the calm professor – a grim Peter Sarsgaard in one of the best performances of 2015 – and any number of flustered participants. We’re aware that the shock “treatment” isn’t real, yet these scenes still keep us on edge. Will the next answer be wrong? How will the subject react to hearing it? And, most importantly, will that person flip that electrical switch and believe he or she is inflicting pain on another human being?
Sarsgaard portrays Milgram as the very embodiment of an unbiased observer. He’s staid and stoic, firmly directing his charges with nary a deviation in his tone or volume. The fact that Sarsgaard can keep this tenor and still draw us in so effectively is a testament to his careful pacing and almost hypnotic rhythms. More than once, he explains the origin of his last name, yet the repetition seems more entrancing than annoying.
Just as Milgram placed his volunteers in a box, literally and figuratively, Almereyda does the same to his protagonist. For starters, Milgram is most comfortable sitting in a glass booth at work; when Milgram is with his wife (a wonderful Winona Ryder), Almereyda sometimes adds high levels of artificiality and fake black-and-white backgrounds, as if Milgram steps into a diorama of sorts. The man who devises a fake reality for his subjects is in one of his own.
Almereyda’s visual choices reflect a creativity and spontaneity you wouldn’t normally expect from a story of science (and is far more fascinating than faux intellectual Oscar bait like The Theory of Everything). When Milgram mentions his obsession with the Nazis’ sickening lack of accountability – it was the catalyst for his study – we see actual footage from the Eichmann trials as Milgram watches on TV. Experimenter wants to represent his point of view, so we’ll sympathize with a man whose methods were (and are) often questioned as cruel and even inhumane.
If you’re wondering why a film hadn’t already been made about Milgram’s controversial study, well, one had. It was a 1976 made-for-TV entry called The Tenth Level, starring William Shatner as a character named Professor Stephen Turner, a guy conducting experiments that have a firm resemblance to Milgram’s. As you might not expect, the story of this seemingly mangled TV movie is all here in Experimenter, Almereyda dropping Milgram onto the set of the production, testing the concept of reality for the man, the character, and this outstanding film.