Director: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Kellan Lutz, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo
The 1960s were an extraordinarily eye-opening time that saw many scientific achievements and discoveries. Many experiments were conducted to probe into aspects of human behavior that had not previously been explored or questioned, and which produced surprising and disquieting results. One study was that conducted by social psychologist Stanley Milgram, which tested ordinary people to see how much pain they were willing to inflict on a stranger simply because the parameters of the experiment told them that is what they must do. Experimenter highlights unquestionably fascinating research, and it succeeds occasionally but inconsistently at being as gripping as its subject matter.
Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) is the man behind the curtain, the one pulling the strings and manipulating his experiment so that he can observe rather than take part in it. He watches as participants pick pieces of paper to decide whether they will be the teacher or the learner, and the learner is then hooked up to an electric shock machine. Watching from another room, Milgram sees the learner unhook his equipment and reveal himself to be a player rather than a participant in the experiment, which is all about how far the teacher will go despite the faked cries of the learner to stop the experiment. Evidently, this research is controversial, and its results are quite unsettling.
Milgram spends so much time preparing and watching that it seems fair that he would be longing for some human contact, despite the fact that he shares most aspects of his work with his wife (Winona Ryder). As a result, this cinematic version of Milgram frequently addresses the audience, regaling them with the true purpose behind his research and jumping around through the film’s chronology, talking about his child who has not yet been born or discussing his own death. This device does make Milgram relatable, but seems a bit too playful for the serious nature of his work. The film also employs black-and-white backdrops for many of its settings, highlighting the forced or less than genuine nature of many of his interactions.
Milgram, like any good scientist, is a staunch defender of his work, furious when his project comes under fire because it purports to get at the reason behind societal compliance during the Holocaust, where ordinary people followed evil orders without ever questioning them. Milgram cites his parents’ experience during the Holocaust and the Hebrew root of his last name frequently, which feels like an attempt to ensure that the audience constantly has context, and that Milgram is not a monster but instead someone interested in bettering society by figuring out what makes people do what they do. Yet Milgram is merely a manipulator, known so widely for his experiments that his students think he is trying to read their reactions when he announces the news of JFK’s assassination.
Sarsgaard, who often plays despicable characters, is considerably warmer and more likeable here, but there is still an antisocial air of superiority that Milgram possesses, particularly when the 1970s bring an unfortunate new facial hairstyle and a renewed pompousness. Sarsgaard is dynamic and energetic at the right moments, but his performance suffers more from being the centerpiece of a film that wants to be creative and make its research feel cutting-edge and important but is not nearly as tactful as Milgram himself about how to go about it.
This Sundance Premieres entry has held several public screenings in Park City thus far, with two more scheduled.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer