FILM REVIEW: ‘Experimenter’ is a frustrating look at the life of Stanley Milgram

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Experimenter is amongst the most frustrating films I have ever witnessed. One part biopic, two parts exploration into the mechanisms behind our behavior, the film offers ample examples of Stanley Milgram’s work, but fails to deliver a captivating story about the man himself. It’s an admirable and abstract approach to a life lived in pursuit of knowledge, complete with a stellar cast, but filmmaker Michael Almereyda’s latest ultimately comes across as something intended to be more educational than entertaining.

We begin with the obedience experiment that made Stanley Milgram as much of a household name as any social psychologist could hope to be. The experiment, as you may know, measured the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who calmly instructed them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience (in this case, delivering electric shocks to an affable stranger strapped into a chair in another room). The first few minutes focus solely on the experiment, placing you in the moment without comment, and after you understand what is happening Milgram himself (played by Peter Sarsgaard) takes lead as the film’s narrator. He walks us through the experiment and the team that helps bring it to life, as well as his motivations behind it. There are visual callbacks to early moments in his life, but they are rare and only to establish his relationship with other characters. Once accomplished, we return to the experiment.

As the obedience trials carry on, a cast of notable faces come and go in the role of anonymous study participants, including John Leguizamo and Anton Yelchin. The vast majority of participants complete the study, and in doing so lead Milgram to further question why blind obedience seemed so easy to achieve. You expect the narrative to move linearly, following Milgram’s time in the spotlight, and to an extent it does, but rather than focus on a play-by-play of Milgram’s life, Experimenter chooses instead to focus mainly on his work. While there are transitional sequences that attempt to convey how Milgram’s obedience experiment followed him, for better or for worse, the majority of the film is more concerned with teaching the audience to appreciate Milgram’s lifelong pursuit of knowledge for what it says about human nature. While this is an admirable thing to pursue, the narrative all too frequently gets lost in a hail of educational bullet points that fail to captivate despite a strong delivery from Sarsgaard.

There are many fine things to see and learn in Experimenter, but Almereyda struggles to make the two gel from the moment Milgram begins his narration. There is a sense of whimsy that leads you to believe anything might be possible, and the accompanying visuals that occur during moments of narration often back this up, but as Milgram’s life is so focused on the search for truth and understanding it’s hard to know just how Almereyda wants us to feel about anything happening on-screen. Are we supposed to be entertained? Are we supposed to be educated? Is this some fresh take on edutainment? There are moments when Experimenter is each of these things to one degree or another, but it’s never one, two, or all consistently. It’s a grab bag of ideas that feel thrown together in a way that would absolutely enrage the man these ideas are meant to represent.

Through it all, Sarsgaard delivers what is yet another memorable performance in his growing catalog of dramatic turns. At his side throughout the majority of the story is Winona Ryder, who makes an increasingly rare and incredibly impressive on-screen appearance as Milgram’s wife, Alexandra “Sasha” Milgram. If the magic in Sarsgaard’s performance is his ability to make even the most mundane scientific analysis captivating, Ryder’s key to success is in the restraint she brings to the role. In a world of endless questions, Sasha is Milgram’s rock, and she brings an outsider’s perspective to his world that raises the quality of his work, as well as the quality of Milgram as a person. He’s more than a social psychologist when he’s with her, and despite the many ups and downs of his career, as well as the toll that roller coaster takes on his soul, he has Sasha. Her presence is just as important to Milgram’s success, if not more so, than any one of his experiments, and Ryder finds a way to convey that with a grace rarely seen today.

When you reach the end of the film, Experimenter draws a vague, yet meaningful connection to the importance of considering the lessons learned from Milgram’s work when attempting to understand the world we live in today. There are multiple stories every week of crimes and other heinous acts whose occurrence leaves you wondering how any human could ever behave in such a way, and it’s possible to argue that some understanding may be found through the observations made during Milgram’s obedience trials. If the movie had been able to convey something equally as thought-provoking or meaningful with its narrative I think Experimenter would be a no-brainer for Oscar contention, with Sarsgaard being promoted for best actor, but as is Experimenter simply fails to connect.