Peter Sarsgaard dons a suit, a tie, and a really atrocious beard to star in Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, about famous (or infamous) social psychological Stanley Milgram. The film debuted at Sundance earlier this year and is screening at the New York Film Festival in advance of its theatrical release on October 16th.
Seriously, look at this beard, though:
To business. If you don’t know Milgram by name, you’ve almost certainly heard of the behavior experiments he conducted in the ’60s. In these experiments, one man, the “learner,” would attempt to commit simple word pairs to memory. Any incorrect answers would be met with an electric shock issued by another man, the “teacher.” Only the learner was actually employed by Milgram and never received any shocks at all. While the teacher was told the study was meant to examine the effect of negative reinforcement on learning, what Milgram was actually interested in is whether the teachers would disobey orders and quit the experiment when it became clear that they were hurting someone. Most did not.
The son of Eastern European Jews who emigrated to New York City prior to the outbreak of World War II, Milgram was inspired in large part by the Holocaust, which saw soldiers and civilians alike commit horrible acts because, well, they were told to. Controversial at the time and on to today, Milgram’s experiments were critized for being unethical in their treatment of the teachers; as one of Milgram’s students describes it, he was the one delivering shocks, albeit of a psychological nature, to his subjects through his deception.
Experimenter bears more than a passing resemblance to Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, released earlier this year. Both films are about controversial psychological experiments–Experimenter‘s in the ’60s, Stanford‘s in 1971–that provided disturbing evidence about man’s willingness to hurt other people. In both films, the man running the experiment–to become an armchair psychologist for a second–comes off as vaguely sociopathic, or at least lacking vast quantities of empathy.
Happily, the two films are, stylistically speaking, quite different, which helps keep Experimenter from feeling redundant. While Stanford is a more straightforward drama, Experimenter is incredibly reminiscent of a stage play, with some inventive use of rear projection and Sarsgaard frequently breaking the fourth wall to monologue for the audience. It’s fitting, given how Almereyda is the man who gave us Ethan Hawke Hamlet. There’s also an elephant in several scenes. I’m not sure why. It’s the elephant in the room. HOHOHOHOHOHO.
Experimenter‘s main drawback is that, for all Sarsgaard turns in an amazing lead performance, the movie never makes a convincing enough case that its subject is interesting enough to build an entire movie around. Almereyda, who also wrote the script, tries. He focuses the back half of the script on Milgram’s post-obedience study career, which featured some interesting work, and the film is peppered with recognizable actors (John Leguizamo, Dennis Haysbert, Anthony Edwards, Taryn Manning… Kellan Lutz playing William Shatner), whose brief appearances do their part to shake things up. I appreciate what Almereyda was going for, stylistically, and Experimenter is definitely low-key engaging. I just wish there’d been more there.