Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter pulls from theatrical conventions to depict Stanley Milgram’s landmark psychological experiment.
Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter pulls from theatrical conventions — creating two-dimensional backdrops and breaking the fourth wall — to depict a landmark psychological experiment: In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted experiments on obedience in an effort to understand the obedience and conformity of the Nazis in the Holocaust.
In his experiments, participants were assigned to play the Teacher and test how punishments affected learning. A man in a lab coat instructed them to administer increasingly high voltage shocks to the Learner, who was in another room, whenever he answered incorrectly. Teachers trembled and complained, but at the urging of the authority figure, 65% of subjects still administered 450 volts of shock to the man in the other room, even when hearing cries of complaint, pain, begging them to stop, and ultimately, nothing (those cries were fake, as the “Learner” was actually an actor hired by Milgram’s lab).
As a theater and psychology double major with Jewish heritage, Experimenter is practically designed for me. But the psychology is pushed to the side in favor of dramatizing Milgram’s life; the questions about obedience to authority aren’t explored beyond the experiment depiction; and the added elements from theater are distracting. Experimenter too quickly becomes an occasionally meta-theatrical biopic about the academic struggles and psyche of an overconfident, sensitive, and historically once-relevant white male.
Post-experiment, the film changes course to focus on Milgram’s life path and flaws. As we see Milgram’s further experiences in academia (as well as the addition of a terrible beard), we learn about his struggles to get tenure. His ethics are questioned but he maintains an unwavering belief in his experiments, even as his own students may question it. Maybe it’s attempting to make a clever point about Milgram’s own authority and inability to see how it affects others, but it falls flat and I can’t be bothered to care. It’s unclear why this story is being told, or what the film is trying to convey. This is especially true when the film starts depicting scenes like the flashy car that Milgram bought, a boring scene solely existing to illustrate a self-congratulatory gesture… alas, his wife thinks the Dean won’t give them financial aid if he sees them with a flashy car.
This none-too-enthralling story also forces other actors to fall by the wayside. As Milgram’s wife, Sasha, Winona Ryder is criminally underused. She exists only in relation to her husband, helping with his work, supporting him, asking questions but never having opinions of her own. It seems like she’s just in the film so they have some female representation — her character isn’t fleshed out enough to give us any other compelling reason.
Experimenter jumps from one style to another so much we don’t know what world it’s really set in. After Milgram monologues into the camera, we slip briefly back into realistically filmed office and classroom scenes. When we later return to this artificial theatrical environment, it’s added back in through another mechanism: the scenes happen in front of an obvious, two-dimensional, sepia-toned fake backdrop. The sets look like theater sets. This could have been a great way to show the whole film is itself an experiment, a manipulation. Because his famous experiments involved a great deal of deception and play-acting, Almereyda tried to represent those elements with his theatrical moments.
Unfortunately, his execution fails. Because the meta-theatrical elements aren’t introduced at the beginning, they can’t frame the way Almereyda tells us the story. It’s never clear if Almereyda is trying to show how Milgram was manipulative, manipulate the audience, or something entirely different. There’s no apparent logic to explain which parts are theatricalized. In experimenter terms, there’s no clear independent variable that, when adjusted, causes an alteration in the film’s style to purposefully affect its audience.
In the end, the film is bizarre, and somehow still dull. The re-enactments of the famous experiments at the beginning of the film is the most interesting part. The story about Milgram that follows doesn’t seem vital, and the style switching throughout gives us too much whiplash to extract meaning from it. Experimenter wants to depict the vital importance of Milgram’s experiments in addition to his flaws as a person, but adds such a bizarre lens that the takeaway is muddied. In the end, Almereyda’s takes so much dramatic license that the most compelling part of Experimenter — the actual experiments — gets obscured.
Experimenter is now available to rent on VOD, iTunes, and Amazon. It is also now playing at Embarcadero Cinema in San Francisco.