Let’s have our own social experiment, shall we?
Take a Sip: for each electrical shock
Take a Drink: whenever Milgram does something socially awkward or cold
Take a Drink: for each variation on the experiment
Take a Drink: whenever somebody copies the behavior of a group
Do a Shot: for Fourth Wall breaking
By: Henry J. Fromage (Two Beers) –
This is the year of the infamous social experiment film, with The Stanford Prison Experiment and Experimenter following each other step for step ever since both debuted to good reviews on consecutive days at the Sundance Film Festival.
This crapfest is not involved, although I understand the confusion.
Experimenter is Stanley Milgram experiment film- starring Peter Sarsgaard as the psychologist who studied the effects of taking orders and group pressure on individuality, decision-making, and conscience. More simply, he’s the dude who convinced test subjects to adminster electrical shocks a (play- acting) stranger in ever-increasing (to the point of fatality) voltages just because a man in a lab coat told them to.
The film apparently came about because Director Michael Almereyda was reading Milgram’s seminal tome Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View and decided it would make a good movie. There aren’t a whole hell of a lot of scientific treatises that make it to the big screen, but Almereyda makes the career of this controversial scientist come to life with style and confidence. And what a career it was- starting with that infamous experiment which delved into the question of how a human being could “just follow orders” to Holocaust lengths (as the child of European Jews, Milgram had a particular stake in this question). What shocked the world was how uniform his results were- man or woman, European or American, the vast majority of subjects tested took the experiment all the way to the purportedly fatal end, just because they were told to. That wasn’t his only experiment, though, with less existentially dark results coming from Candid Camera-inspired examinations of group conformity and the inspiration for Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon (turns out the game really should be Six or Seven Degrees of Everybody).
This fascinating subject matter is brought to compulsively watchable life by two elements- excellent performances and directorial verve. Sarsgaard is an ideal choice to play Milgram, with his detached, aloof demeanor and beady, ever-so-slightly snakelike eyes. He’s no villain, or even unsympathetic, but it’s not hard seeing him toeing the very line he claims to be trying to understand, without comprehending how many shades of grey he’s painting with. The rest of the cast is aces, including consummate everyman Jim Gaffigan as the ostensible torturee, John Leguizamo and Anton Yelchin among the testees/”torturers”, and Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife and the emotional center of the film.
Almereyda brings this all to life crisply shot, methodically framed imagery. He emphasizes Milgram’s slight remove from everyone else through barriers and walls, while simultaneously opening up his thoughts to the audience through Fourth Wall-breaking banter. This is highly effective in establishing a lighter, more conversational tone to a subject that could play almost too dour.
Not all of the embellishments work as well, though. Multiple times Almereyda chooses to shoot a scene (especially a conversation while driving) with a obviously artificial, 1950s-style studio backdrop. At first it seems like another whimsical flourish, but as he keeps going back to it you have to wonder what the message is supposed to be (especially when he doubles down on the reflexive artificiality by showing the filming of The Tenth Level– a 1975 CBS TV movie inspired by the experiment and starring William Shatner and Ossie Davis). What does Milgram or this story have to do with reality and artificiality? Considering Almereyda just wanted the film to be “playful”, does it matter?
This beard is real… or is it?
Experimenter is a stylish, superbly acted look at one of the most influential experiments (and experimenters) in the pursuit of an understanding of our complicated human nature.