Writer-director Michael Almereyda enter public consciousness back in 2000 with his moody, ultramodern take on Hamlet — which featured Ethan Hawke as a suitably disaffected crown prince, complete with woolly Peruvian hat.
If something there got lost amidst the static and the skyscrapers, then his latest film, Experimenter — about social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), particularly his famed experiment into obedience to authority — is certainly more to the point.
It all begins with a box. The box in question is part an experiment that takes place at Yale University, 1961. It’s designed so that a “teacher” can administrator electric shocks of increasing severity to a “student” in a neighboring room in the event of an incorrect answer to a series of multiple choice questions.
According to the man in the grey lab coat (John Palladino) it’s to test the impact of punishment on the memorization of words pairs. Only it isn’t.
The amiable, seemingly hapless “student” is always an actor (played by comedian Jim Gaffigan); the shouts, the pleading, the different teachers — an uneasy John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin as a conscientious electrical engineer — hear are prerecorded. The choice of 65% of the students to continue, regardless of orders, is all their own.
Experimenter doesn’t seek to explain these results — like Milgram himself the film knows these are studies are just the first step towards knowledge.
Sarsgaard has a particular line in low-grade sleaze-bags, but his restraint and circumspection take on a new light as a man who views all social interaction as an experiment. From his first meeting with future wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) in an elevator — no locale more functional — to dinner with his mentor, Solomon Ashe (Ned Eisenberg), which takes place in front of a black-and-white rear-screen projection, Milgram’s life story is viewed through the lens of his profession.
While offering crash courses in its subject’s most notable contributions to psychology, aided by Milgram’s considered addresses to camera, Experimenter’s main goal would seem to be in making us aware of the strings that dictate so much of human behavior.
Unlike the American public — who initially decried his experiments as unethical and victimizing — the students who distrusted him; and the organization who refused him tenure; this is a film you will want to see.