Sarsgaard mesmerizes in this playful journey into the mind of an outcast academic.
To watch Experimenter is to subject yourself to a form of filmic mind manipulation, in which the movie’s central character, Stanley Milgram (played by a coolly cerebral Peter Sarsgaard), looks directly into the camera, at us, and seems to measure our reactions to his unlikely life story. It’s a strange, unsettling, but almost playful experience watching Sarsgaard watch us. It’s this mischievousness that makes the film, directed by Michael Almereyda, one of the more unique, oddly entertaining things you’ll find at the cinema this fall.
Milgram is a real-life figure, a late, influential social psychologist whose most notable (notorious) work was a Yale experiment in which subjects would administer increasingly violent electric shocks. A volunteer is told that a fellow lab rat (Jim Gaffigan) is sitting on the other side of a wall, his fingers hooked up to the electric shock machine that’s under their command. The second volunteer plays a memory game, and for every wrong answer he receives a shock by their counterpart on the other side of the wall. In reality, the second “volunteer” is actually an actor and isn’t hooked up to anything (Gaffigan feigns wails of pain with each fake zap). Milgram’s interest is the subject’s behavior: How much punishment are the subjects be willing to inflict on another, innocent human being?
The results of this “obedience” test are alarming—65% continued administering shocks despite the man beyond the wall pleading with them to stop. The film shows a variety of test subjects, each played by famous character actors. Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning each play subjects and while their screen time is fleeting, they get their mini chamber stories across. Watching the inner turmoil bubble up in their facial expressions is mesmerizing and unsettling.
The intermittent moments when Milgram turns to us to comment on what we’re seeing are unforgettable not just because it’s visually, but because Sarsgaard is magnificent. As Milgram he’s calmly deceptive, as if the words coming out of his mouth are a cover-up for the ominous thoughts he’s processing behind his steely eyes. It’s easy to fall into a state of hypnosis as he slips his heady ideas underneath your eyelids and into the back of your mind.
Milgram’s ethicality comes into question when we learn that he rarely interacts with his subjects despite arguably putting them through a form of emotional torture. Surely he owes them the baseline courtesy of a personal interaction, or even a thank you. But no. He’d rather leech behavioral data from the volunteers and promptly kick them back to wherever they came from. His proclivity for emotional detachment starts to affect his personal life when his supportive wife, Sasha (Winona Ryder), starts to feel as shunned as his lab subjects. Milgram’s personal life is covered in a cursory way that wastes Ryder’s talents and makes his home life feel not just secondary, but disposable to the larger story. This bit of narrative negligence may be a fair reflection of Milgram’s state of mind at the time, but if this part of his life was so unimportant, why include it in the movie to this extent? At the very least, Ryder and Sarsgaard work very well together, and it definitely doesn’t hurt that they look good as a couple.
The movie’s disappointing final act is concerned with the fallout of the experiment and the devastating impact it had on Milgram’s reputation and career. Both Almereyda and Sarsgaard seem half as emphatic in depicting Milgram’s downfall as they are the movie’s strong front-end. Experimenter is gripping in that it allows us to spend time with this brilliantly realized character, an outcast who’s so out of touch with others that he only opens up completely to us, his imaginary friends. That’s when the movie works best, when we’re falling down the rabbit hole of Stanley’s mind. The movie’s imagery turns surreal, with literal elephants in the room trailing Stanley as he spouts his babble at us and rear-projected images that reflect the academic artifice that defines his personality. His behavior is more shocking than his poor subjects’. And yet, we want to be near him.