EXPERIMENTER (2015) review
written by: Michael Almereyda
produced by: Danny A. Abeckaser, Fabio Golombek, Per Melita, Isen Robbins, Aimee Schoof & Uri Singer
directed by: Michael Almereyda
rating: PG-13 for thematic material and brief strong language
runtime: 97 min.
U.S. release date: October 16, 2015 and October 23, 2015 (limited), iTunes, Amazon and VOD
One of my favorite episodes of “The Simpsons” was an early one from season one called “There’s No Disgrace Like Home”, where Homer takes his family to counseling after an embarrassment occurred at a company picnic. It didn’t go well, obviously. The family members delivered electric shocks to each other out of frustration, at first – and then just for fun. This resulted in the city’s power grid collapsing and the exasperated doctor giving Homer double his money back. I thought about this episode before watching “Experimenter”, a sterile drama about psychologist Stanley Milgram, who conducted psychology experiments in which volunteers deliver electric shocks to strangers in another room. The film isn’t as funny as that episode, but it is quite enlightening.
Writer/director Michael Almereyda doesn’t take the typical biopic route here, offering instead to cover select moments in the scientist’s life and work. He does so in a theatrical manner, while committed to portraying Milgram’s insatiable obsessions and curiosities.
Psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) organized a special experiment while at Yale in 1961 that seated average citizens in front of an electric shock machine. At their disposal was a word matching game and knowledge that wires were attached to another player in the next room to administer jolts of pain. The paid volunteers were tested on their willingness to follow orders, making sure would comply with delivering shocks in response to incorrect answers they received. Milgram, who was already experiencing domestic drama with his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) and their two children, became something of a legend in his field because of these experiments. Later on though, Milgram’s methods of learning via rewards and punishment were questioned and the doctor took to defending his methods as they were challenged. The public spotlight on this took an even greater toll on his family life.
At the beginning of “Experimenter” we see an assistant in a grey lab coat debrief two volunteers, Jim (Anthony Edwards) and James McDonaugh (Jim Gaffigan), the later states he was told by the VA he has a heart condition. All of this is being monitored by Milgram from behind a two-way mirror. We hear Milgram’s voice as he watches intently, “life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards” and then Sarsgaard turns to us after Jim is strapped in, stating, “this part – this part is where the experiment really begins,” as if he is our host. As if we ourselves are in a studio or theatrical audience.
This is a quirky and curious approach that succeeds due to Sarsgaard’s typical calm (albeit suspicious) demeanor, making Milgram as introducing a study as his subjects. This initial observation of Jim the teacher and James the learner takes place less than ten minutes into the film and it’s intensity is fascinating. Neither of the subjects really know what they’re really getting into. We see how stressed and uncomfortable Jim becomes as he hears audible groans from behind the wall where James sits each time he gets an answer wrong.
Almereyda doesn’t show us the receiver of shocks, just the distributor and the calm, observing Milgram – in fact, the camera doesn’t cut to Gaffigan’s James at all at first. It’s a sequence that’s confusing and uncomfortable for the viewer as well making these decisions successful.
Other volunteers are shown – played by John Leguizamo, Donnie Keshawarz, Anton Yelchin (with a Chekov accent) – all of which convey varying degrees of concern for the learner. The learners aren’t limited to men though, as a woman (Taryn Manning) eventually included in the experiment. The results are ultimately the same however – nervous laughter, sweating and clenching of the fists – yet compliance.
Each time the focus is on how the learner responds to administering physical pain they can only hear from the other room. Milgram writes down how the learner may laugh out of nervous discomfort or clench his fist, which clearly focuses on which volunteer is being studied. When Almereyda finally pans over to the learner (each time played nicely by Gaffigan, who becomes the MVP of the picture), that’s when the film really gets interesting.
When we cut to the subplot involving the introduction of Ryder’s Shasha and how she and Milgram meet for the first time and eventually get married, the film becomes understandably less interesting. It’s obvious this is shown to try to provide a human side to the cold Milgram with his observer disposition, but he winds up studying her just as he would any of his subjects, despite becoming more involved in Milgram’s work as his secretary.
The idea of studying how people react to the trauma of inflicting pain on individuals they do not know is interesting and certainly bizarre. As Sarsgaard becomes more of a definitive narrator – acting like a host that walks into a seated audience while in character, at one point referring to a daughter that hasn’t been born yet – directly addressing the movie’s audience, we’re given a clearer understanding of what’s behind Milgram’s obedience experiments. At one point there’s a segment that involves the story of Nazi butcher, Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trail, which supposedly served as inspiration for Milgram’s studies. He questions, “how did the perpetrators of genocide live with themselves?” Which begs the question – are Milgrim’s participants any different from the Nazis who followed orders blindly?
The camera walks with him in and out of observation rooms as he talks about human behavior and the obligation to follow instructions regardless of the outcome to anyone else. These are thoughts that we ponder along with Milgram, making these moments just as provocative as the experiments we watch.
As Milgram, Sarsgaard carries the film with his deadpan delivery and subconscious charm. The characters around Milgram can’t quite seem to figure him out – seen specifically during a scene when Milgram announces that President Kennedy has been shot. They think it’s one of his experiments – that he’s trying to get a reaction out of them. It’s one of many scenes that Sarsgaard so convincingly embodies Milgram as both an intriguing character and a host.
Toward the end of “Experimenter” we see how recognizable and popular Milgram and his work has become to the general public. On the streets of 1970s New York City, he can be recognized in the as “the torturer” by those who take what they read in newspapers as face value. At one point, we see television writer George Bellak (Michael Siberry) approach Milgram with the idea of bringing his obedience experiments to the small-screen, similar to CBS’s “Playhouse 90”. It was called 1976 production called “The Tenth Level”, because in this iteration it was the level in which the teacher first heard the audible reaction of the learner. Milgram is seen on set during filming and at one point having a conversation with the actors, William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert), the highlight of which was a recollection Davis shares of his own experience with racial discrimination as a boy in which he felt obligated to obey the law.
By the end of the film, I was reminded me that we are all susceptible to blind obedience, whether it comes from a desire to please or a instinctual need to follow. We’ve all experienced it and maybe have even been disgusted by our responses to it. “Experimenter” is a reminder of this aspect of human behavior. The film covers other observations by Milgram of human behavior – some of which I’ve often caught myself incorporating in my people-watching – but what remains is the buzzing and the zapping he is ultimately known for.
Almereyda has the time period down in both costume and score and an understandable fascination with Milgram’s coldness and curiosity, finding the character with the same questions we have – why are participants so complacent in following direction even when they are aware what they are doing is causing someone pain?
The aforementioned theatricality of “Experimenter” surprisingly becomes an asset to the film. Almereyda uses projections and paintings in the backgrounds that becomes a refreshing way to tell the story. It’s an approach that keeps viewers interested, amused and involved. I found “Experimenter” a curious and frustrating watch – in the best way possible (if you can understand that) – but then I always got a kick out of “Candid Camera” and “Punk’d” and, of course, “The Simpsons”.