Experimenter has one of the finest opening sequences of the year. Led by the always watchable pair of Anthony Edwards and Jim Gaffigan you are thrust right into the middle of one of Stanley Milgram’s experiments.
You squirm and are left uneasy as the experiment, which sees the teacher (Edwards) punish the student (Gaffigan) with increasingly violent electric shocks every time he gets an answer wrong, is explained to us.
Unbeknownst to Edwards’ character is the fact that Gaffigan is in on the experiment though. In fact, as Edwards increasingly thinks he is giving him stronger and stronger shocks, Gaffigan just sits idly by in another room faking his pain. Rather than Gaffigan being the person experimented on, it is in fact Edwards who the test revolves around.
All the while Peter Sarsgaard watches over the event from behind a window, making detailed notes of what he’s seeing. It’s both beguiling and compelling to see the experiment unfold, especially as Edwards’ character is replaced by a fine array of different actors, including Anton Yelchin and John Leguizamo, each of whom don’t realize they are being tested.
Ultimately, 65 percent of the subjects conducting the “obedience experiment” follow the commands of the lab-coated authority, even though the immediately affable Gaffigan’s screams became more and more intense.
Once Experimenter moves away from the obedience experiments of 1961 and begins to explore Milgram’s life in more detail it struggles to maintain its early momentum though. Set against the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi colonel who was one of the main organizers of the Holocaust, Milgram’s work becomes more and more analyzed and it’s hard to know if he was an innovator or instigator.
Here in lays Experimenter’s charm though. Because while usual biopics go out of their way to depict their protagonists as heroic Gods, striving for greatness as they walk amongst us mere mortals, Stanley Milgram is presented as just a slightly pretentious everyman, struggling to be recognized for his work and becoming increasingly isolated and frustrated because of that.
Peter Sarsgaard, as per usual, delivers a perfectly pitched performance as Milgram. Unlike his loud and erratic scene-stealing turn in Black Mass, as Milgram Sarsgaard is calculating, and buzzing at a different frequency to the people around him as he constantly looks to analyze their thoughts and actions. Plus, alongside the lovable Winona Ryder as his wife Sasha Milgram, the pair steady Experimenter through its most labored moments.
Experimenter is undeniably a tough watch though, as it throws a lot of facts, figures, and information at its viewers in a monotone style that sometimes makes it feel more like a lecture and lesson that a cinematic experience.
In fact, I must admit, that upon leaving the cinema, I was originally unimpressed by Experimenter. Michael Almereyda’s direction felt cold and disconcerting, and while he laid out his scenes in a brazen and original fashion - breaking the fourth wall, using fake backdrops, and aimlessly lunging through Milgram’s life to make the story truly cinematic – you feel like you are being tested.
But it’s a film that stays with you because it challenges you as a viewer, making you wonder how you would have acted if you’d been part of the test, and Almereyda’s volatile direction is a key component of that.
Smart, unsettling, and meandering, Experimenter will not be for everyone. But those of you who manage to resonate with it will find enjoyment in just how challenging and stimulating it is.