Experimenter may be a hard sell- and even a hard watch- more many audiences, as the film explores the work of Stanley Milgram, a renowned social psychology pioneer. However, the film does a great job breaking down and dramatizing complex social experiments, although it stumbles while showing the life of the experimenter and professor.
Experimenter sets itself apart from this year Stanford Prison Experiment, a film with similar roots and themes. Milgram’s most famous experiment involved prompting subjects to administer painful shocks to other people- which they largely followed. Experimenter makes no attempts to dramatize the experiment, but instead starts while it is already underway.
Peter Sarsgaard soars as the direct and to-the-point Milgram, and often speaks directly to the audience. The film has an odd aesthetic throughout, as its characters are often placed against flat backgrounds, attempting to show the experimental nature of their lives at a whole. It’s an interesting idea that could repel some, but it ultimately works with the film’s academically-rooted style.
Experimenter explores Milgram’s other work in addition to his most famous experiment. Milgram’s entire body of work is of similar nature, and all ties back to the Holocaust and the “banality of evil” that fascinated generations of psychologists. The film depicts Milgram’s experiments, theories, and overall impact in a cinematic way that keeps audiences interesting.
However, one of the few issues of the film arises from how closely Milgram is tied to his work. The audience only begins to “get” Milgram when he is performing an experiment or engaging others about their lives and his work. We often see Milgram with his wife, played by Winona Ryder, but the scenes that focus on Milgram, the person, do not add up to very much and doesn’t give the audience a full picture of the man.
Experimenter is not a traditional biopic, but instead a bold and often experimental docu-drama that breaks the fourth wall, employs surreal imagery, and uses strange sets and effects to demonstrate Milgram’s work. The film explores Milgram’s work in detail, and does an excellent job of showing his main points, and even showing his work’s criticism, in a visual medium. Experimenter is a rare cinematic bio that is not about the person per say, but about their body of work.
EXPERIMENTER Arriving on Blu-ray and DVD from Magnolia Home Entertainment on 1/5.