NYFF Review: Experimenter Will Leave You Questioning … The Movie
1 1/2 out of 5 stars.
It’s undeniable that the direction and production of Michael Almereyda’s disappointing Experimenter isn’t problematic because of apathy or laziness from the director. He’s selected a rather bizarre structure as a way of giving information and a multitude cinematic devices to move the story along, all of which I’m sure were done for reasons he can justify. And at times, the jarring nature of having Peter Sarsgaard turn to talk to the audience or walk through a hallway with an elephant following behind, has the desired effect of calling attention to how easily an audience can be lulled into going along with something by an authority (in this case the director).
And it’s undeniable that Sarsgaard is a masterful actor (he was a highlight in Black Mass and Pawn Sacrifice), and has done great work as a stage actor, which is exactly the type of performance he’s asked to do here. At times, the movie seems more like a one-man show about Stanley Milgram, with reenactments slotted in to make it feel more cinematic, but it never escapes this strange theatrical approach (although the film was not based on a play) and feels more like an experiment in movie making that’s interesting to observe but fails to justify charging for tickets.
It’s to Experimenter’s misfortune that although it premiered at the same Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, The Stanford Prison Experiment came out a few months earlier, and while done in a far less showy approach, it’s more engrossing and disturbing than Experimenter. In a lot of ways, Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story plays like something HBO would have done in the early 2000s, when they were adapting a lot of theater works to teleplays.
The formulaic approach, making everything seem more and more like a staged reenactment was certainly done on purpose, but any of the reaction you should have to the disturbing findings of his experiments are tempered by this approach, as are the conversations, which are constantly undercut by yet another “device.” The experiment in question asks, “Would a person declared ‘the teacher’ shock ‘the learner’ if told by an authority that it was part of the experiment?”
We’ve all heard about the Milgram Obedience study before, and it, in fact, inspired the Stanford Prison Experiment. The findings, that 65% of the population would follow orders, are disturbing, but that at least justifies a film about the experiment—not a film about Milgram the man.
Despite all its flourishes, Experimenter really is a pretty bland, standard biopic that doesn’t illuminate the man as much as it recounts and recreates “significant” moments in his life. And even by breaking the fourth wall, there is no larger mission behind the film than for you to “get to know Stanley.” He tells us a lot about himself and what he thinks about (think Woody Allen’s fourth wall-talking in Annie Hall) but most of what he says either isn’t important or is something we should be seeing instead. So do we get to know Stanley? Do we understand his motivation for the experiment and how it affected his interpersonal life and psyche to be known for this discovery about the dark side of human nature? No, not really. I’m sure Milgram is a really interesting person, but this movie makes him seem like a pretty boring guy.
I feel bad saying this, but one of the biggest problems the film has is the importance placed on Winona Ryder as Milgram’s wife, Sasha. In retrospect, she seemed to have had very little importance on the actual study or Milgram’s work as an experimental psychologist. Almereyda includes her in a lot of the conversations and suggests that she was the “woman behind the man,” but Milgram’s home life is so removed from his experiments and personality as a scientist that I kept thinking, “Why are we wasting time with him at home and on this ordinary relationship?”
Perhaps if she were truly a supporting character, rather than a co-lead, but the film simply can’t justify the amount of screen-time her character has. By comparison, Olivia Thirlby in The Stanford Prison Experiment had far less screen-time but made a bigger impression playing a woman who actually did have a direct impact on the experiment as a scientist herself. As for the other professional psychologists who worked with Milgram, we barely know anything about them, and they function as little more than a sounding board for Milgram to start another monologue.
There are moments when you sense that there was real inspiration behind this movie from Almereyda, but someone in the production needed to ask the question, “Why does his story need to be told, and why in this way?” If it simply was a desire to recount the experiment and show its continued significance, a documentary would have worked far better at advancing the conversation, especially when they mention that the experiment has been done multiple times since. There’s footage of this experiment, plenty of interviews and articles, and new experiments and data to prove and explain his thesis, all of which would have addressed the bigger issues about obedience better than this trite approach.
A film about the man who thought up these experiments would have been interesting as well, but only if Almereyda were really interested in understanding the psychology of the man and went deeper with the character, which he seems unwilling to do. Experimenter ends up feeling more like a vanity project for the director who wants to show off all the cinematic style he can and becomes a two-hour chore to get through for an audience that knows even the basic facts about the experiment.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—