“Experimenter,” which just premiered at the 2015 New York Film Festival and opens in theaters Fri., Oct. 16, 2015, is a creative telling of the experiments and life of Stanley Milgram by filmmaker Michael Almereyda.
The film stars Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram and Winona Ryder as his wife, Sasha. A number of well-known actors appear as supporting players, including Dennis Haysbert, Kellan Lutz, Anthony Edwards, Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo, and Josh Hamilton.
Milgram was a researcher who conducted controversial experiments at Yale in the early 1960’s to study how much humans obey authority. Two people would take part in each experiment – one given the title “Teacher” and the other “Learner.” The Teacher was asked to read a series of questions, and each time the Learner got an answer wrong, the Teacher was told to press a button on a machine that gave the Learner an electric shock. (The Learner was out of sight of the Teacher in a separate room.)
With each wrong answer, the voltage increased until the Learner was clearly in pain and even ceased to respond at all over an intercom. The majority of those in the study continued the experiment in spite of the fact that they couldn’t even be sure the Learner was still alive in the other room. And they did this simply because they were told to do it by an authority figure – the person conducting the experiment.
What the “Teachers” in the experiments didn’t know was that the “Learners” were planted and were not receiving electric shocks at all. The point was to find out if people would obey instructions rather than go against authority to take care of someone else. Milgram felt that this human behavior showed how the Holocaust could happen, as people followed orders at concentration camps, bypassing their empathy for the sake of doing what they were told.
The film is odd and stylized, but in a good way. Sarsgaard repeatedly breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the camera, narrating his own story, sometimes with projections behind him, such as an elephant. We assume this is the “elephant in the room.” Then, Sarsgaard is back in the story in the moment of the telling. Despite the serious subject matter, there is a great deal of humor in the movie.
It’s a perfect role for Sarsgaard, who has the range to play a character who is, at turns, noble, arrogant, strange, funny, and ethically questionable. Almereyda, as writer and director of the film, takes risks that pay off. This is not “The Imitation Game.” There’s nothing formulaic about this film. It’s also nice to see Winona Ryder in a role that gives her a chance to show her ample acting chops.
The final result is a film that is both entertaining and disturbing.