Watching Experimenter is to realize how little life is in most biopics. Which is odd: Despite being based on a real life, the standard biopic feels freeze-dried, narrative conventions calcifying the subject matter and strangling any spontaneity out of the material. Most such movies carry the stench of rigor mortis, but Experimenter is alive and alert from its first moment. Where other biopics seem to have made up their minds about their famous figures before the opening credits roll, this remarkable study of social psychologist Stanley Milgram remains curious, exploring and questioning his life, career and findings. The man’s work may be more than 50 years old, but a film about his work couldn’t be timelier—partly because of that work’s still-resonant lessons, and partly because writer-director Michael Almereyda has crafted a bracing, daring drama that extrapolates it into every crevice of modernity. Many biopics simplify great lives; Experimenter enriches and enlarges one.
The film stars Peter Sarsgaard as Milgram, quickly establishing the experiment that made him famous. It’s 1961 at Yale, and he’s invited subjects to participate in a study in which one person will administer electric shocks to a second person (Jim Gaffigan) in a separate room if he gets multiple-choice questions wrong. (Each wrong answer will result in an increased shock.) What the first person doesn’t know, however, is that there’s a twist: The second person, James McDonough, is actually working with Milgram, and not really receiving shocks. The experiment is meant to observe whether subjects will continue to administer higher and higher voltage shocks—even if McDonough begs them to stop—just so long as they’re told to continue by the man running the experiment.
As Experimenter begins, Almereyda clinically lays out the experiment, showing us the alarming amount of times that subjects go on shocking the unseen McDonough, telling themselves that it’s okay because it’s all part of a scientific study. But once Milgram turns to address the audience directly, almost conspiratorially, we recognize that Experimenter will be about more than his iconic study. Intriguingly, though, Milgram isn’t so much confessing to the audience as he is using us as some kind of sounding board. Dead of a heart attack in 1984, at the age of 51, he is present in the moment but also standing outside of each scene, observing from a distance. Milgram is less an occasional narrator than a ghost trapped in purgatory, ruminating over unfinished business left on Earth.
A filmmaker whose best-known work is probably the 2000 adaptation of Hamlet that was set in contemporary New York (starring Ethan Hawke), Almereyda dutifully hits the highlights of Milgram’s life, introducing us to his loyal wife Alexandra (Winona Ryder), who became a social worker, and covering the highs and lows of his academic and professional career. In its bare outline, Experimenter could be mistaken for a biography of a brilliant, controversial artist, someone who dared to reinvent a medium and for his trouble received pushback from a society that wasn’t ready. But Almereyda is profoundly disinterested in narrative banalities, an attitude he signals by jolting us with the occasional visual non-sequitur. (Why is there an elephant in the Yale hallway every once in a while? Why does a visit to the house of one of Milgram’s mentors incorporate rear projection rather than a traditional set?) Never showy and always intellectually provocative, Experimenter encourages a lean-forward approach in the audience, which is appropriate for a film about a scientist who preached the evils of blind obedience.
Sarsgaard gives one of his finest performances, both withholding and deeply vulnerable. His Milgram is a man who treats his reactions to the events around him as closely guarded secrets. Working in the drab basement office where he conducts his obedience experiment, he briefly comes to life—but not in a demonstrative way. His mind is engaged by the results, transfixed by the dozens of men and women who blithely continue shocking McDonough without feeling much guilt, but his response is in some ways a bitter, self-fulfilling assumption he has about humanity’s moral limitations. With the high-profile trial of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann going on simultaneously, Milgram seems partly driven by a need to prove to himself (and others) that such monsters aren’t the exception but the rule, that we’re all capable of doing terrible things when we can justify our actions by saying that we were just following orders.
Even here, though, Almereyda won’t settle for the pat explanation, the trite dime-store psychological portrait of his subject. Sarsgaard slowly reveals a growing ego in Milgram—a budding self-regard that flowers when his experiment becomes famous, criticized and debated—but the actor works in different vibrant shades, suggesting the man’s possible motives without ever landing on one clear answer. If human nature remains mysterious to Milgram, then Experimenter is equally flush with ambiguity, Almereyda utilizing an intentionally sterile filmmaking style to leave motives and actions open to interpretation.
Not that Experimenter is some dispassionate cinematic exercise. For all its surface chilliness, the film is stunningly evocative, a melancholy tone casually asserting itself over the story. Milgram will be treated as a pariah in some quarters because of his experiment and its findings, but Experimenter’s lightly wistful air doesn’t just stem from its protagonist’s muted disappointment—it seems to flow from the movie itself, hinting that Almereyda feels a kinship to this scientist. Consequently, Experimenter can be read as a poignant acknowledgment of the risks and strange repercussions of putting one’s art (and, therefore, one’s soul) out there into the world. In ways Milgram couldn’t possible imagine, his obedience experiment will be embraced and distorted by the culture, serving as a pungent metaphor for any artist’s surreal experience of having to let go of his work once the audience claims ownership of it for themselves.
Rarely does a biopic balance its subject’s cultural importance and personal idiosyncrasies as finely as this film does. And it’s not just Almereyda and Sarsgaard’s triumph: A cast that includes Gaffigan as well as Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin, often in one-scene roles, are all in sync with their director’s precise, deceptively bloodless approach. As portrayed in Experimenter, Milgram was someone without much faith in his fellow man. (He did subsequent studies, each of them fascinating, which further validated his dim outlook.) Almereyda may very well share that viewpoint, but Experimenter’s tartest irony is that a film this full of vibrant, beautifully attuned feeling touches upon something that’s very deeply human: the anxious, wiggling realization that lives are inherently messy, and that our attempts to bring order to them—whether through reason, or strongly-held theories, or even a movie—can’t erase that fact. That’s not a comforting thought, but its honesty is invigorating, like so much of this outstanding film.
Director: Michael Almereyda
Writer: Michael Almereyda
Starring: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Edoardo Ballerini, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Abeckaser, Taryn Manning, Anton Yelchin
Release Date: October 16, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and Vice President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.