Experimenter: Film Review
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Taryn Manning
Director: Michael Almereyda
Realising that exploring social experimenter Dr Stanley Milgram was likely to be a controversial choice, the writer, director, and producer of it all, Michael Almereyda could have been on a sticky wicket.
However, by choosing to break the fourth wall conventions in this biopic a la Bronson, he removes the controversy of the man himself and ends up providing a more rounded insight into Milgram.
The film begins with Milgram's most incendiary experiments into the human condition, wherein he managed to put two subjects - a teacher and a pupil - into a room and made them administer shocks to a stranger. Based on Milgram's childhood growing up as a Jew and being influenced by events in the Holocaust, Milgram's reasoning for his trial appears sound - what could provoke any right minded person into such horrific action?
The Milgram experiments clearly had ripples and ramifications and Almereyda's exploration and presentation of them is nothing short of a shock to the system.
By using the aforementioned fourth wall convention and using photos for backgrounds for some events and meetings, it's a bolt upright reaction to what transpires on the screen. (And even has a feel of TV series Masters of Sex about it in its recreation) - but in many ways, it's a film that defies convention for a man who ultimately defied his own conventions.
Sarsgaard is a cool crisp slice of clinical perfection as Milgram, each word carefully and theatrically delivered for maximum impact and each dryly wry witticism despatched with ease; there's plenty of humour in this film that's essentially a snapshot of a biopic.
By keeping it free of the minutiae of Milgram's life and investing us solely in pivotal moments at certain points in time, Almereyda's concocted something smart and involving.
Exposition serves for explanation and shifts of time periods within the film, and the discussions raised within will likely provoke some incisive and robust debate as the movie ends. However, rather than bogging down the film in stuffy discussion, thanks to some excellent casting (look for the cameos who make up the subjects of the initial Milgram experiment) and a great performance from Sarsgaard and a return to form for a long time absent Winona Ryder as his wife, Almereyda provides a film that hits squarely and confidently what it wants to do.
It may skirt around some issues and some of the ramifications of the experiments (there's an unexplored inference that Milgram was being tailed and one of his colleagues dies early in age, both of these are left to linger frustratingly rather than be delved deeper into), but Almereyda's never interested in anything more than using the style and the effortless ease of his leading man to deliver a fascinating take on a thrilling subject.