Doesn’t matter how many volts it is, being shocked freakin’ hurts!
In 1961, famed social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) concocted a psychological experiment that, on the surface, seemed simple and easy, but once looked at deep enough, turned out to be quite disturbingly complex. What Milgram would do in this research study, was have one person be on one side of a glass door, get them strapped-up to a machine that delivered electric shocks and have the other person involved with the study ask them to reiterate phrases that they say. If the person on the other side of the door got it wrong, the person in control of the electrical volts were supposed to deliver as high of a shock as they were instructed to do so, no matter how much pain or anguish the person on the other side of the door sounded, or better yet, appeared to be in. Obviously, people question what to do next and whether or not to deliver the shock because, what they think at least, is that the other person is being shocked, nearly to death – little do they know is that said person being shocked-to-death, isn’t actually being shocked at all and is just testing to see how far and willing these subjects are able to go with the shocks.
Never trust Peter Sarsgaard with a box like that. Or in general.
And that, my friends, is what we call in the psychology biz, “the Milgram Experiment“.
Everything about the whole Milgram Experiment and the ideas about humans that it brings up is actually pretty interesting. Milgram, as he tells us quite often throughout, is trying to test the limits of just how far humans will go when they are given, as plainly defined, an assignment; while nobody apart of the experiment may actually be bad people who enjoy inflicting cruel and unusual punishment onto random strangers, at the same time, they’re given this assignment to do and have to keep with it, no matter what. So of course, they trudge on along and continue to zap, and zap, and zap away at the other subject, without wholly fighting the system that is telling them to do so.
If this sounds a whole lot like the Nazis well then, you hit the nail right on the head. Milgram himself, as he tells us constantly throughout the movie, tells us that his parents were apart of the concentration camps before they came to America and it’s interesting to see how this needle-and-thread narrative constantly gets weaved-in throughout, even while we’re learning of just what kind of person Milgram actually was. While writer/director Michael Almereyda has a lot to work with here, in terms of handling the biopic-form of this person’s life, as well as throwing that person’s own ideas into the narrative, he doesn’t lose himself on the material, either.
At the same time, however, it’s hard not to watch Experimenter as two different movies into one, with one being definitely far more interesting and better than the other.
But still, even the one that is off worse, isn’t terrible. The only issue with the part of the movie focusing on Milgram’s personal life, is that Milgram himself, isn’t all that intriguing of a person to begin with. Sure, the studies he concocts are, but overall, him as a person, is quite dry and uneventful, which calls into question why we needed such a film dedicated to telling his whole story, and less about the study itself. Of course, Almereyda does fine with showing us plenty of the study happening, but it’s sometimes so effective and compelling to watch, that it’s not hard to wish that it was just the whole film, with Milgram occasionally looking towards the camera to talk to us.
See? Winona doesn’t even trust him.
Still though, Almereyda does some neat things with the biopic-form, in that he definitely understands that the material he’s working with isn’t all that exciting or eye-popping, so instead, he finds ways to make it so. There’s a random scene about half-way through where Milgram and his wife are driving in front of what’s clearly a walled-in background, but for some reason, it’s done on purpose. It’s meant to campy, odd, dated, and over-the-top, but so is the rest of the film, which doesn’t totally work, but is still interesting to think about and wonder why, among everything else, why Almereyda decided to do such a thing?
Is he trying to say something about people’s perceptions? Or, is he just trying to keep our minds off of material that’s not really all that strong to begin with?
Either way, it doesn’t matter because it makes Experimenter a bit more watchable than it probably could have been had it just focused in on Milgram, his life, and leaving it at that. This isn’t to say that Sarsgaard doesn’t do a fine job in the role of Milgram, as he has that perfect blend for dull weirdness, but at the same time, it’s hard not to imagine what could have happened to this character, had there been maybe more to him. We see him act around his family and such, just as he does at the office and none of it’s really intriguing; his studies may be, but he himself, isn’t really something to speak about, let alone see a whole movie about.
Again though, Experimenter isn’t a very long movie. At nearly an-hour-and-a-half, it moves on by, showing us all the study, making us wonder what we’d do in the same position, and providing plenty of food-for-thought about the whole human race. Will it have you not trusting people for the rest of your days? Maybe, not maybe not. But either way, it’s worth checking out, if only because it will bring some energy to your brain during the dead of winter that is January.
Consensus: Though it’s two movies into one, Experimenter brings up enough interesting questions and ideas about the human condition that makes it worthwhile to look past some of the flaws in its narrative.
6 / 10
Although they still have plenty time to meet-cute, when they’re not ruining perceptions of the human race.
Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire