United States. Directed by Michael Almereyda, 2015. Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder. 98 minutes.
Maybe you’ve heard of Stanley Milgram, or the psychology experiment that bears his name. If you haven’t, here’s a quick summary, courtesy of Mike D’Angelo (whose A.V. Club review of Experimenter sums it up much more succinctly than I could, and I tried, several times):
Volunteers…are told that a fellow volunteer…is hooked up to a machine that gives electrical shocks. They’re instructed to ask him questions, and to press a button that shocks him each time he answers incorrectly, with the level of the shock gradually increasing. In reality, the button does nothing; all of the man’s yelps and protests, emanating from a separate room, are feigned and prerecorded. What Milgram really wanted to find out was just how much pain people will willingly inflict if ordered to do so by an authority figure wearing a white lab coat. Repeatedly, he found that about 65-percent of his subjects would deliver what they believed to be a 450-volt shock, even after the man begged them to stop and then fell into a silence implying unconsciousness.
Controversy still hovers over the electric shock experiments, and Milgram received a fair amount of criticism for his methods. His detractors accused him of deceiving his subjects (among other things). Milgram responded that he needed to create an illusion in order to get genuine responses. To paraphrase Stephen King, Milgram lied in service of revealing the truth.
That’s what movies do as well, and Experimenter plays with that idea to the point of being meta. Peter Sarsgaard portrays Milgram as a man whose world is most real while he performs some kind of study, whether it’s taking Polaroid photos of office visitors, instructing students to sing in the subway, sending manila envelopes to random people, or watching a simulation of torture. Outside the world of his experiments, surreal things happen. Elephants wander the halls of Yale. Milgram and his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) have tea with his mentor on a soundstage in front of a matte painting of a sitting room. Nobody ever seems to age.
The sequence that sums Experimenter up best comes late in the film: in the mid-’70s, a producer loosely bases a made-for-TV movie on the Milgram experiments, with William Shatner playing a distinctly WASPish version of the Jewish Milgram (and if you’ve ever paid attention to the lyrics of Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song,” you’ll spot the irony right away). In Experimenter, Milgram visits the set during production and muses about how surreal it all is. It’s equally surreal for the viewer, as there’s no attempt to convince the audience that the guy Kellan Lutz is playing William Shatner.
That may be the point of the film but it also hurts it; writer/director Michael Almereyda can’t squeeze enough drama out of Milgram’s personal life, or maybe there just wasn’t much there to begin with. A single scene depicting the Milgrams at the brink of divorce lacks any sort of emotional oomph because it’s the first indication the audience gets that there might be anything other than bland affability going on between the two. Hell, despite their best efforts, Sarsgaard and Ryder barely have any chemistry.
Which isn’t to say that their performances, or anyone else’s, are bad. Sarsgaard goes a bit over the top with his almost-autistic interpretation of Milgram, but he does a great job of disappearing into the role. Everything about the role of Sasha plays to Winona Ryder’s strengths. A host of recognizable actors–Jim Gaffigan, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo–turn in memorable performances in what boil down to glorified cameos. Most importantly, the operational scenes–where we actually see Milgram go about his work–never fail to fascinate.
The problem with Experimenter is that too many scenes do in fact fail to fascinate, and the film doesn’t really benefit from being shoehorned into the biopic format…which could be exactly the point Almereyda wants to make. But too many times I found myself wishing he’d stop trying to be clever and tell the damn story.