There’s clearly a strong story to tell in the life of experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram, but despite an able cast and some welcome stylistic flourishes, Experimenter never quite gets its results.
Milgram, played here by Peter Sarsgaard, was the Yale researcher responsible for now-infamous obedience experiments, in which participants were instructed to administer what appeared to be painful, even lethal, electric shocks to other test subjects. The fact that 65% of test subjects were willing to progress to lethal voltages simply because a nice man in a lab coat told them to revealed ugly truths about human nature and our relationship with authority, and Experimenter makes a committed attempt to explore those questions.
Links are drawn to the horrors of Nazi Germany, apparently a formative influence on the Jewish Milgram, the value of his research justified in the light of the Holocaust. The ethical questions around the inherent deception of his research are tackled head on, and refreshingly few easy answers are offered – though the film is clearly more sympathetic with Milgram than with his moral critics.
Less successful are director Michael Almereyda’s efforts to play with our illusions of control and agency. Sequences shot with rear projection, and Milgram’s frequent fourth wall breaks, subtly highlight the gaps between our sense of self and the reality, but a final act visit to the set of a film based on the experiments makes it all too literal – and, more importantly, feels dramatically inert.
Sarsgaard’s Milgram is cold, clinical and compelling, bringing life to the facts and stats the script frequently requires him to reel off. He’s buoyed by a surprisingly deep supporting cast, including the likes of Anton Yelchin and John Leguizamo, most relegated to cameos. Winona Ryder is rather wasted in the thankless part of his wife Sasha, their romance for the most part a distraction from the film’s bigger questions, her arc bearing little to no emotional heft.
Still, Experimenter is rarely dull, and there are enough innovations to lift it out of the doldrums of turgid biopic purgatory. This is an honest, inventive attempt to understand not just Milgram’s life, but also his work, and why it continues to be questioned, challenged and discussed to this day.
This is a barebones DVD release of the film, which skipped cinemas in the UK, without any extras to speak of.
Words by Dominic Preston