Experimenter ***

by Ruben Rosario

Peter Sarsgaard soars in this unique look into the social experiments of famed psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Is it worth $10? Yes

They sit in adjoining rooms, a wall separating each other. One of them reads out a sequence of phrases the other has memorized, and the latter, strapped to a chair, must finish with the correct word. Or else he gets an electric shock, administered by the same person reading out the phrases.

The year is 1961, and Stanley Milgram, an assistant professor of social relations of Yale University, lords over these experiments, which ostensibly gauge the effect of punishment on learning, with obsessive rigor. He gazes intently at the “teacher,” the subject doing the zapping, growing increasingly agitated as the other participant, or “learner,” begins to scream, begging him to stop. But the young man in the gray lab coat supervising the experiment indicates the teacher must continue, that there is no other choice.

The opening sequence of Michael Almereyda's quietly absorbing biopic "Experimenter": The Stanley Milgram Story sets the tone for the film that follows: modestly produced yet evocative of the periods it covers. At a compact yet deliberately paced 90 minutes, the movie's economy of storytelling occasionally makes it appear like it's listing the findings of a study, especially when taking into consideration it spans more than two decades. Almereyda structures his screenplay around Milgram's voiceover narration, which often has star Peter Sarsgaard breaking the fourth wall to address the viewer directly (think Kevin Spacey in "House of Cards"). Such a self-referential flourish has the potential to sink any movie from under the weight of its affectations. Almereyda doesn't stop there, and he goes so far as setting a handful of interior scenes in what appears to be a sound stage, with the actors performing with a few props in front of a screen, briefly giving the film that "Dogville" feeling. But the artifice in this case meshes well with the subject matter, and that compatibility prevents it from coming across as pretentious.

Almereyda wants to lay his cards out on the table to the viewer, so he does away with Milgram's deceit fairly early on. (A mild spoiler follows, so skip this paragraph if you want to go into "Experimenter" knowing as little as possible.) The reason why James McDonough (comedian Jim Gaffigan) is the only “learner” we see onscreen is because he is part of the research team. Thus, the “teachers,” played by familiar faces like Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo and a nearly unrecognizable Anton Yelchin, are the sole test subjects here, and the only electric shock being administered is the one the “teachers” experience at the start of the session, just to have an idea of the pain they think they will be inflicting.

Weaved into the scenes dramatizing Milgram's research, Almereyda chronicles his courtship with Sasha Menkin (Winona Ryder), the woman he would eventually marry. A more conventional film would shift the focus to Milgram's marriage and the effect his work has on his domestic life, but Almereyda prevents this from happening. In this sense, "Experimenter" sidesteps the pitfall that, to this reviewer, ruined "Steve Jobs," Danny Boyle's portrait of Apple's co-founder, which was ultimately consumed by its subject's estranged relationship with the daughter he fathered with an ex-girlfriend.

All photos courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Almereyda is more interested in finding out what compelled Milgram, a Bronx-bred son of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, to carry out these controversial studies, which were inspired by his interest in deconstructing the mentality that would allow the Holocaust to take place. Milgram's Yale studies coincide with the trial of Nazi SS officer Adolf Eichmann, who explains his actions by stating he was “merely a transmitter.” Consequently, the obedience experiment touched a raw nerve among Milgram's peers. In one of the film's most compelling scenes, he defends his findings in front of members of the American Psychological Association, many of whom deem his methods unethical. The elephant in the room, and yes, an actual elephant actually follows Sarsgaard in two scenes, is the overwhelming evidence stating most “teachers” carry out the test to completion, even after all they hear from the “learner” is silence.

The unsavory results stand as an inconvenient truth that echoes political theorist Hannah Arendt's phrase “the banality of evil.” “Why did you listen to that man, and not the man in pain?” Milgram asks one of his “teachers.” It's a question that lingers throughout the film, even after Milgram returns to Harvard, his alma mater, where he conducts his “six degrees of separation” studies. Later scenes, which show a middle-aged Milgram teaching at City University of New York, saddle Sarsgaard with unfortunate (and accurate) facial hair, but Sarsgaard's performance is consistently solid, and it mirrors Almereyda's disciplined approach to the material. His empathetic screen presence also prevents "Experimenter" becoming too dry. (Even though he played major roles in recent films like "Lovelace" and "Night Moves," this is the actor's first starring role since the criminally underappreciated "The Dying Gaul" in 2005.)

Rather than retreating into passive homemaker mode, Ryder portrays Sasha as an independently-minded life partner with a genuine interest in her husband's work. In addition to his solid ensemble cast, Almereyda also has fun staging a scene from the TV movie made out of Milgram's obedience study, which starred William Shatner, an unconvincing Kellan Lutz, and Ossie Davis (Dennis Haysbert). Shatner, naturally, hams it up as Milgram's small-screen alter ego, a stark contrast to this admirably understated production that makes us even more appreciative of Almereyda's less-is-more M.O.

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