Upon hearing about the Stanley Milgrim obedience experiments in Psych 101, many undergrads – myself included – instantly thought “Holy shit, this needs to be a movie!” But while I may have wanted an overblown psychological thriller, Experimenter instead examines the head of the man who spent his career examining everyone else’s. Filmmaker Michael Almereyda does the latter so well, it makes my idea look really stupid in hindsight.
The opening scene gets right into the experiment, demonstrating how much pain an Average Joe will deliver to another Joe if told to “just do your job” by an authoritative voice. Through mounting distress, most of the ‘puppets’ go all the way, and the superb bit-part actors deliver unnervingly authentic performances.
This authenticity is also felt in Peter Sarsgaard’s on-point representation of psychological experimenter Stanley Milgrim, a man who prefers to tell it straight like a true educator. It’s one of the only films that can get away with the lead talking directly to the camera, a frankness that feels genuine to the character.
Milgrim was heavily embedded in observing human behaviour both inside and outside laboratory conditions, and the film paints his perspective by making certain scenes look like a cheap stageplay (a ‘puppet show’). It’s jarring at first, like a budget Anna Karenina, but the more it occurs, the more purposeful the artistic decision becomes.
Public reaction to the experiments help round out the story, delving deeply into ethical questions and codes of conduct without burying us in boredom. The film never gives a definitive answer, but it does take joy in mocking someone who labels Milgrim a monster based on one review she read about his book. (Don’t completely obey reviewers, people.)
Experimenter is a smart biopic, a great history lesson, and an ode to critical thinking.
‘Experimenter’ Movie Times
Other Films To Follow Up: Compliance, The Stanford Prison Experiment