VOD film review: Experimenter
Matthew Turner | On 11, Feb 2017
Director: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin
Watch Experimenter online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Criminally denied a theatrical release in the UK (after screening at the UK International Jewish Film Festival in 2015), Experimenter is the textbook example of a VOD hidden gem. A provocative and formally inventive biography-slash-case study, Michael Almereyda’s challenging, fascinating drama about Stanley Milgram is anchored by a terrific central performance from Peter Sarsgaard.
Rather than trace Milgram’s (Sarsgaard) early life, the film begins in 1961, with the social psychologist setting up what would become his career-defining experiment. Believing they are taking part in an experiment about the effects of negative reinforcement on learning ability, two subjects are designated Teacher and Student and placed in separate rooms. The Teacher asks the Student a series of questions and is instructed to administer a series of escalating electric shocks every time the Student gives a wrong answer.
However, the experiment is actually designed to test how much pain an ordinary citizen will inflict on another person under the orders of an authority figure. To that end, the “Student” (played by Jim Gaffigan) is a member of Milgram’s team and his wrong answers, his increasingly distressed screams and his pleas for mercy are all part of the experiment. (A stern-faced, lab coat-clad moderator sits in with the Teacher to insist they comply with the rules if they hesitate.)
Sarsgaard is perfectly cast, conveying Milgram’s dispassionate genius with a complex performance that’s equal parts arrogance, obsession and melancholy. There’s also strong support from Winona Ryder as Milgram’s supportive wife, who becomes equally fascinated with the experiment, while the likes of Anthony Edwards, Anton Yelchin and Taryn Manning are all put to excellent use as the various test subjects, none of whom react in quite the same way.
That, of course, is a key appeal of the film – you find yourself wondering how you would have reacted in the same situation. Astonishingly, a full two-thirds of Milgram’s 800 test subjects administered the full course of shocks, even when no noise came from The Student, indicating that he may have passed out or worse. That questioning of why citizens blindly follow orders that inflict pain and suffering has an unsettling relevance today that writer-director Almereyda couldn’t have foreseen, but the issue also obsessed Milgram, an American-born Jew of Romanian-Hungarian extraction, who was driven to try and understand the human behaviour that led to the Holocaust. His findings lead him to identify a condition he termed “the agentic state”, which you will have encountered if you’ve ever come up against a jobsworth.
The film would be fascinating enough if it were just played straight, but Almereyda’s inventive direction elevates the material into something truly special. He employs a number of different theatrical devices, from frequent fourth wall breaks to clever use of obvious back projection to other off-the-wall touches, such as having an elephant (credited as “Elephant in the Room”) wandering through the back of the shot when Milgram makes a reference to the Holocaust.
The main experiment on its own would be enough for a whole film, but the script also explores the impact of the study on the rest of Milgram’s life, as he struggles to escape its shadow, including a diverting interlude where Milgram is played by William Shatner (Kellan Lutz) in a TV movie, and the revelation that Milgram also devised the ingenious “small world” experiment that led to what we now know as the Six Degrees of Separation theory. Thanks to a provocative script, stylish direction and a sterling cast, this is one of the VOD highlights of the last year.