Director: Michael Almereyda
Primary Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Taryn Manning, Edoardo Ballerini, Anthony Edwards
US Release Date: 16 October 2015
The year is 1961. Two men are paid for coming to a Yale University lab to participate in a psych experiment. The man who pays them wears a lab coat and is noticeably cold. One of the men is assigned the role of “learner” (Gaffigan) and is taken into a room. Electric shock devices are placed on his arms. Afterwards, the subject designated as “teacher” (Edwards), joins the man in the lab coat in a separate room. He is instructed to ask the learner questions using a microphone. Whenever the learner answers incorrectly, the teacher must use a machine in front of him to administer an electric shock. The shocks increase in strength as the experiment goes on. Sounds of the learner screaming in pain can be heard from the other room. He repeatedly begs the teacher to stop and asks to leave. The learner hesitates several times, but the man in the lab coat assures him that everything is fine and that the experiment must continue. And so it does.
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, Experimenter is based on the life, problems, and experiments of famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Sarsgaard). Though the film does include some details about Milgram’s upbringing and personal life—his wife Sasha (Ryder) is never too far away—it is far more interested in exploring and calling attention to the questions raised by his obedience experiments than it is in presenting anything that might be deemed a “comprehensive” or “traditional” biopic.
Again and again, Experimenter declares that Almereyda isn’t afraid to challenge his audiences or to do things a little differently. While its story is based in facts and history, the film still includes a number of more fantastic elements. Both with its visual choices and with the manner in which it presents its story, Experimenter demonstrates a degree of playfulness and creativity that, though unexpected given its subject matter, most certainly enhances the film.
I knew nothing of Stanley Milgram or his obedience experiments before I saw Experimenter. I also never saw a trailer for the film. This may be part of why I found its opening so jarring, but it surely was not the only reason. Looking back, I’m not sure if I initially believed that the learner was being shocked or not, but Almereyda made sure that I did not know for sure that he wasn’t until the experiment had run its course. By beginning Experimenter with a sequence designed to dupe viewers, Almereyda causes them to feel like those who are the subject of Milgram’s experiments. Additionally, by not making Milgram particularly vocal or visible in it’s opening, Experimenter further encourages viewer to identify with those who are experimented on rather than with the man at its center.
The film is constantly experimenting on its audience, and it refuses to take a passive role in the viewing experience. Moreover, like Milgram, Experimenter does not experiment simply for the sake of experimenting; instead, the film constantly asks viewers to consider large and important questions and it even provides a few insights along the way.
There is humor all throughout Experimenter, but a sense of unease is never far away. Like Milgram’s obedience experiments, Almereyda’s film may cause its viewers (read: subjects) to laugh when their mind is telling them to cry. Even with its more lighthearted moments, Experimenter remains serious about one important thing: it wants its viewers to think—not just about they are seeing on screen but about themselves, about authority, and about everyone around them. The specific conclusions that they draw are not necessarily important to the film, but that they learn to look at certain things more critically is. In fact, with its depiction of Milgram and his work, Experimenter works to help viewers develop some the same awareness that Milgram claims is the key to liberating ourselves from our state as puppets.
The tagline on the posters for Experimenter is “Illusion Sets the Stage. Deception Reveals Truth.” While such words can easily be read as a defense of Milgram’s controversial experiments, they are also a description of the film itself. Almereyda’s script repeatedly calls attention to the fact that deception was an essential part of Milgram’s work. As uncomfortable Milgram’s deception might make some, it was also the source of revelation, and something similar can be said of the use of illusion and artifice in the film.
Instead of hiding its deceptions from its subjects as Milgram did, Experimenter places them front and center. Whether it’s having Milgram talk directly to the camera or depicting an elephant following him down the halls of Yale, the film consistently calls attention to its own status as a deliberately crafted object. Even Milgram’s obviously fake beard late in the film can be seen as a tool through which Almereyda emphasizes that which is artificial. More importantly, the prevalence of conspicuous artifice and attempts at illusion shapes the way viewers perceive the film by constantly urging them to question what they are seeing. If some of them happen to continue to do so even after they’ve left the theater, then Experimenter will have done its job.
As fascinating (and as troubling) as Experimenter is, there are aspects of the film that may not work for everyone. This is especially true of its somewhat jumbled narrative structure. Almereyda’s script does not unfold in clearly chronological manner, and numerous scenes occur without much explanation of their setting or of what has happened since the scene preceding them. This is not the say that the film is hard to follow, but those expecting a more linear format may be frustrated. Also, as intriguing as many of the film’s quirky visual and fourth-wall-related choices are, it is not unlikely that some will find them distracting.
I should also say that Sarsgaard is very good in the film. As the story around him threatens to spin out of control, he provides something sturdy (albeit, inscrutable) for viewers to latch onto, and his presence is crucial to the film’s success.
Watch Experimenter on Amazon.
While its experimental tendencies and the way in which it calls attention to and embraces artifice may not appeal to all viewers, Experimenter remains a worthwhile film regardless. This daring and cerebral biopic is more concerned with a set of ideas than it is with any individual; given how fascinating those ideas are, this is certainly a good thing. At the same time, this noticeably self-aware film is also buzzing with creative energy, and it manages to provide an unexpected viewing experience that will stick audiences for quite some time.
Until Next Time
Thank you so much for reading. Free to add your thoughts or to ask a questions my leaving a comment below. You can also stay connected with me by following this blog here or on twitter.
I know that I’ll be seeing Mockingjay Pt. 2 this weekend. Room is finally coming to Tulsa, so I hope to see that soon too.