An early scene in “Experimenter” establishes just how much control Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) exerts in his Yale lab—he even dictates the colors of his assistant’s lab coat. “I decided to make it gray. White was too medical.” The film’s Milgram is egotistical, controlling, and ever-so-slightly megalomaniacal—and yet he cuts a charming, sympathetic figure in Director Michael Almereyda’s new film.
Michael Amereyda’s “Experimenter” depicts the saga of Stanley Milgram and his brainchild, the eponymous Milgram Experiment, which sought to gauge the average person’s willingness to obey morally questionable orders from authority figures. The experiment’s subjects are asked by a researcher to deliver a series of increasingly painful shocks to an undercover actor posing as a fellow subject. Only a small minority of subjects actually stood up to the researcher and terminated their trial. The remainder of film traces Milgram’s life after his fall from public grace, detailing his new post as a professor at the City University of New York, his stabs at post-obedience experiments, his run-ins with the few remaining vestiges of his former fame, and, ultimately, his death—which Milgram narrates from beyond the fourth wall.
The film’s cast delivers all-around excellent performances. Winona Ryder’s portrayal of Milgram’s wife Sasha is nuanced and understated; she is able to show unflagging love and support without ever seeming sycophantic or two-dimensional. And Edoardo Ballerini’s Paul Handler,Milgram’s colleague and quasi-friend, is urbane and cultured, undeniably close to Milgram yet distant enough to underscore Milgram’s deep isolation. The ultimate success of a biopic often rests on the performance of the actor portraying the subject, and Sarsgaard does not disappoint. His performance is masterful, especially considering the film’s complex take on Milgram’s character. Sarsgaard manages to accentuate Milgram’s egotism while still making the character likable and sympathetic; he balances Milgram’s righteous fury with the moral grayness of the experiment itself, as well as with Milgram’s odd listlessness regarding his ultimate fate. Sarsgaard successfully portrays Milgram at his most imperious, as he is within the confines of his Yale laboratory, and at his most vulnerable and insecure—he is almost meek at the party at which he meets Sasha. He is witty, charming, yet somehow off—he seems to exist in a plane that is just adjacent to that inhabited by the other characters, and his isolation in spite of his brilliance gives the film a slightly tragic undertone that rounds out its natural playfulness.
And the film is indeed playful, both in content and in form; it features plenty of scenes that almost gleefully flout the conventions of the typical Oscar-bait biopic. In the tradition of great fourth-wall-breakers such as Rod Serling and Alfred Hitchcock, Almereyda has Milgram frequently break off to talk to his audience, delivering witty, charismatic monologues that still somehow manage to carry slightly menacing undertones. Some scenes border on the absurd: a number of Milgram’s hallway monologues taking place with a blurred elephant lumbering around in the background. Another scene, in which Milgram and Sasha visit one of Milgram’s old university mentors, depicts the characters having coffee against a grayscale, two-dimensional backdrop of a stately Victorian home. Director Almereyda never overemphasizes these scenes, but through their very understatedness they serve to emphasize the film’s peculiar timbre.
Even the film’s less flashy scenes show evidence of meticulous planning and execution. Milgram’s lab, for instance, has a very tightly controlled, almost monochromatic palette that mirrors his attention to detail in the lab. His post-Harvard suburban home is also very carefully wrought, all whites and browns, peppered with bright colors from his children’s toys. The film’s sets are carefully made, each of them achieving a deliberate balance between lushness and austerity.
As an aesthetic object, “Experimenter” is undeniably strange. It is oddly paced, tonally bizarre, and almost undramatic. But there is something undeniably compelling about the way Milgram’s personality mirrors the composition of the film itself: the odd, almost self-aware quality lent to the film by his monologues, the concept of weirdness that is integral to the very identity of a film. “Experimenter” is not destined to be a blockbuster—it feels like a rare curiosity more than anything else—but it is a strange and beautiful curiosity.
—Staff writer Adriano O. Iqbal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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