Most biopics nowadays have a Great Man problem. They shoehorn complex lives into discreet acts, omitting crucial details in favor of broad entertainment and gold statuettes. The end of the year is lousy with biopics – The Theory of the Everything is last year’s most inoffensive example – so Experimenter is refreshing since writer/director Michael Almereyda breaks every biopic convention. His film is unabashedly bizarre, at times theatrical, and designed to get us thinking like his titular experimenter. Since the experimenter is a psychologist who unearthed disturbing patterns of human behavior, anything conventional would not do him justice.
The opening sequence has a deliberate, unnerving formal elegance. It depicts the infamous Yale obedience experiment, which was created by Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) in the early sixties. A man in a lab coat instructs two subjects to take on the roles of “Learner” and “Teacher.” The Learner memorizes word associations, and the Teacher quizzes him on them, administering an electric shock for every wrong answer, while also increasing the voltage (they were kept in separate rooms). The pretense of the experiment was to see how punishment could be a learning tool, except Milgram was actually observing the Teacher’s behavior. He wanted to see how far he could push them into obedience, even it meant hurting someone else.
The son of Eastern European Jews, the Holocaust informed all of Milgram’s research. Not all Germans were monsters, he figured, so he wanted to see how ordinary people could be driven to monstrous acts. Almereyda films these experiments so that we come to share Milgram’s detachment; we watch them unfold from the same two-way mirror where he observes the Teacher. In between these scenes, there are some personal details about Milgram. He met his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) at a party, and she would eventually become his partner. They would bounce from Yale, to Harvard, eventually settling on New York, and Milgram would find new ways to observe the tension between the individual and society.
Experimenter starts out like a cross between Kinsey (also starring Sarsgaard) and this year’s The Stanford Prison Experiment, but Almereyda uses bold imagery to announce his break from the genre. Milgram saunters through a Yale hallway, talking directly to the camera, and an elephant follows behind him. It is a bold visual metaphor, yet hardly surprising given Almereyda’s previous work (he directed an adaptation of Hamlet where the “to be or not to be” speech happens in a Blockbuster). There are other strange flourishes, such as black and white rear projection and scenes that are constructed to look like a stage play. The cumulative effect is the exact opposite of immersion: Experimenter constantly reminds us that movies are deception, just like Milgram’s initial experiment.
By disengaging any emotional connection to the material, we must instead think about the reactions that Milgram provokes. Why do most people play along as Teacher? What does it say about the academics and laymen who find his work objectionable? Sarsgaard’s forceful, understated performance is an entry point to Milgram’s icy superiority: he knows his research is important, and although he never quite says it, Milgram’s self-awareness is his greatest asset. The supporting actors, including Ryder, are never given much to work with, although that’s by Almereyda’s design. He compromises with cameos from likable character actors: Anton Yelchin shows up as a Dutchman who walks away from the initial experiment, and Dennis Haysbert plays Ozzie Davis, who stars in a teleplay about Milgram’s work. All these characters have some curiosity or insight about human nature, which keeps us asking what we would do in any given situation.
There is a scene in Experimenter where Milgram watches an old episode of Candid Camera. In the scene, a man walks into an elevator and finds that everyone is facing the direction opposite the elevator doors. Of course, the man follows their behavior, to the delight of the audience. This is a light extension of Milgram’s ideas, although the real implications are deeper than that. Along with his initial experiment, Milgram is responsible for the scholarship informing the phrase “the banality of evil.” Experimenter makes the case that Milgram was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century, as his findings dismantle our notion of individuality. While Steve Jobs had similar insights and would get rich off them, Milgram was after something far more important and sinister. Instead of a feel-good arc, Almereyda shocks us into grappling with Milgram’s research. It’s important stuff, and worth remembering the next time we follow the herd on autopilot.