Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter is strikingly indifferent to being liked, reminding one how rare and refreshing it is to encounter a biopic that courts a somewhat distanced observational response from the audience, rather than detonating the usual emotional fireworks in an attempt to open up a troubling topic’s potential approachability. The film doesn’t include much about the personal life of its protagonist, the controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), and there’s none of the montages that can often be counted on in biopics to reduce vast amounts of social context to platitudinous homily. By contrast, Experimenter is chilly and determinedly subdued, quietly accepting as a given that, for Milgram, work is life, as it is for many committed, somewhat antisocial people who think outside the boundaries of normative society.
The film acutely circles one evolving moment in American history: Milgram’s execution of a series of tests that would yield his landmark book Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. Almereyda dramatizes Milgram’s most famous experiment (and its cultural reverberations) at length, which initially involves an elaborate pretense of two men who’re paid by an academic institution to take a memory test pertaining to the recitation of word pairs. A researcher explains to the men that one of them is to play the role of the student, while the other is to assume that of the teacher. The student must memorize the words and answer questions asked from the vantage point of a separate, sealed-off room by the teacher, who must punish the student’s incorrect answers by administering electric shocks of escalating, endangering voltage. The student, who actually works for Milgram, isn’t receiving shocks. The point of the test is to see how long the teacher will continue with the process, ignoring the student’s feigned cries of pain because the researcher tells him to. Milgram’s results overwhelmingly revealed that most people (women were later included in the study) would dish out the full range of punishment, their fealty to authority trumping their empathy with the victim. The “teachers,” the variables of the experiment, would often evince physical discomfort with their acts, and even occasionally voice protest, but most would press on nevertheless. As Milgram himself says, he’s riffing on Candid Camera, attempting to utilize ruses as X-rays into the marrow of social behavior.
Like the later Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram’s research, begun in the 1960s, refutes the comforting illusion of human independence and self-sufficiency. These and many other experiments, conducted by a variety of researchers, affirm a truth that’s indicated by the continual proliferation of genocide: If someone’s divorced of their feelings of individual responsibility by an authority figure, by insidiously convoluted professional etiquette, they’re capable of anything. How many people each day throughout the world commit even casually blind acts of intolerance because they’re “just doing their job”? As Milgram memorably says at one point in the film, “The results are terrifying and depressing. They suggest that the kind of character produced in American society can’t be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment in response to a malevolent authority.” Of European Jewish ancestry, Milgram takes his work personally, his research a conscious response to the atrocities of the Holocaust.
Aesthetically, the film cunningly suggests life that exists solely within an academic experiment, closed off from chaos that isn’t manufactured. Milgram frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak to us, strolling up hallways toward the screen and, by extension, our faces. Locations outside of Milgram’s various academic habitats are often represented cinematically as blown-up black-and-white pictures that serve as backdrops for obvious sets. These are traditional alienating devices, particularly to theater, but Almereyda’s casual and deliberately inconsistent regard for them—for instance, a few non-academic sets are allowed to be conventionally “realistic”—informs Experimenter with a cheeky, subtly unstable quality, heightening our awareness of the experiences that Almereyda and Milgram are shutting us off from with their obsessions.
Almereyda’s also clearly alive to the possibility that the psychologist has an ax to grind, that the latter hypocritically gets off on exerting the very power that his work seeks to deconstruct. Like the recent The Stanford Prison Experiment, Experimenter is torn between criticizing and enjoying the actions of its central characters, who’re partially driven to tug at the established fabric of society so as to spitefully see just how much they’re capable of tearing off. Experimenter is the better film, though, for its spriteness and sureness of pace and tone, which contrast hauntingly and unsentimentally with the subterranean human truths under the heroes’, and the filmmakers’, microscopes.