Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)
Written by: Michael Almereyda
Directed by: Michael Almereyda
When all is said and done Experimenter feels like a strange dream you had one night, some semblance of ideas and imagery that hits you kaleidoscopically. Michael Almereyda’s biopic about controversial American social psychologist Stanley Milgram is hypnotic, and to a fault, but it still manages to encourage a terrific performance out of its star, the underrated Peter Sarsgaard.
It’s a film that lives up to its title, blending a number of stylistic flourishes together to create an experience that is as experimental as it is unique. From the fourth-wall-breaking narrative to bizarre set designs — most notably the deliberately cheesy green-screens and stage-like sets — and curiously stilted performances from the supporting crew, Experimenter is one you’ll remember if for no other reason than just how odd it is. It’s a film unlike any you’ve seen before.
Well, maybe not entirely. Acknowledging the rise in popularity of meta films in today’s market is just another reality we must accept and if you’ve ever taken the time to soak up Charlie Kaufman’s punishing Synecdoche, New York, you’ll be prepared for the surrealistic imagery and have some sort of grasp on Sarsgaard’s place in this similarly sardonic world. Visual aesthetics aside, Almereyda’s work is far less ambitious and emotionally taxing. That doesn’t mean the film is appropriately less effective, although, confusingly enough, it is a film that becomes noticeably less compelling the longer it drags on.
Stanley Milgram was best known for his Obedience Experiments conducted at Yale in the 1960s. Milgram, a Jew born to Romanian-Hungarian parents in the Bronx, became obsessed with understanding and evaluating the institutionalization of violence, à la the systematic annihilation of millions during the Holocaust. So he designed a set of tests that would measure participants’ willingness to obey commands delivered by a man in a lab coat, commands that would ultimately inflict pain upon one of the subjects. One participant would assume the role of Teacher, while the other would become the Learner. For every incorrect response that was given by the Learner, who was separated in an isolated booth, the Teacher would have to deliver an electrical shock, and the severity of the shocks would increase each time they responded incorrectly.
What resulted was not so much a predictable human response — far more participants continued to obey even knowing that they were delivering multiple, potentially lethal shocks to the stranger on the other side of the wall — but rather a disturbing revelation about human psychology. Milgram found many were unable to justify why they continued, why they obeyed a man in a lab coat rather than honor the requests of the Learner to stop. Throughout the process he would take note of the myriad reactions of those in the role of Teacher: some would get fidgety and scratch their foreheads, others would show deep remorse, others still nervously laughed. But an overwhelming majority of the subjects “completed” the test by inflicting the maximum punishment (450 volts) despite their complaints and obvious discomfort.
Milgram went on to conduct other renowned experiments as well, the most notable being The Lost Letter Experiment and his Small World Phenomenon studies — the former being a way to evaluate how willing people are to help strangers who are not present at the time, as well as their attitudes towards certain groups; the latter, seeking a way to expound upon the theory that all persons in this world can be linked to one another through no more than five intermediary contacts. (The term ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ is often associated with Milgram’s work but incorrectly so; although, strangely, Experimenter has no qualms with embracing that false reality.) Interesting as these pursuits were, the Obedience to Authority tests proved to be both Milgram’s greatest endeavor and his greatest struggle.
Milgram all but became a pariah of the social psychology community following waves of criticism that accused him of the unethical treatment of subjects, and that his experiments were designed with deception in mind rather than revealing truths about sociological tendencies, even patterns of behavior. He was challenged, scornfully, to take the Obedience Experiment to Europe, Germany in particular. “It would feel more authentic that way.”
Experimenter is a tale of two halves — or maybe thirds — with a large chunk of the narrative dedicated to his years at Yale, and the remainder accounting for the fall-out, both publicly and professionally, that resulted from his Obedience tests. While sad and often bizarrely frustrating — Sarsgaard‘s cold, monotonous delivery of lines drenched in scientific jargon makes for a character that’s pretty hard to empathize, much less identify with — the second half (okay, the last two thirds, really) is predictable and quite tedious to get through. It’s the story of geniuses spiraling into madness, only without the obvious madness.
Throughout, it’s Sarsgaard who compels us to keep participating in this experiment, becoming a thoroughly burdened and disheveled-looking man come the late ’70s and early ’80s (he would pass at the age of 51 from a heart attack, his fifth). Winona Ryder plays his dedicated and theoretically equally intellectual wife Sasha, though she’s relegated to a near-silent role without depth. She does help mold the family unit around this man who starts off seemingly dispassionate and of the type you’d assume would later prove villainous. No such trickery here.
There really are no twists after we move beyond Yale, and that’s kinda the problem. After such a strong, deeply involving and uncomfortable opening Experimenter turns to more conventional tactics as his life’s work threatens total irrelevance after several board meetings that don’t go well, a failed attempt to gain tenure as a Harvard professor, and the attendant circus surrounding the TV-movie The Tenth Level, a dramatization of that most infamous experiment. The frequency of bizarre set designs increasingly intrude as well, making for a watch that becomes much less about the actor carrying the burden of portraying such an intelligent yet embattled individual, and more about the ornate, lavish decor.
None of that is to say that Experimenter ever approaches banality. It just becomes less rewarding the more you seek answers and a clear path through to the end. Almereyda has a clear admiration for the guy, and the intricacies of his latest film are married perfectly with the innate complexities of this intriguing life. It’s still a journey well worth taking.
Recommendation: Followers of Peter Sarsgaard’s work should take some time out of their day to track down Experimenter, a unique and puzzling quasi-biopic about controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Acting as a kind of time capsule in its quaint stage-like production design, Experimenter rewards those with a lot of patience and a thirst for intellectually stimulating cinema.
Running Time: 98 mins.
Quoted: “Human nature can be studied but not escaped, especially your own.”
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