If you were to take an introductory course in psychology, there are certain cases and studies you’re bound to read. Phineas Gage got a piece of metal shot through his head and it affected his personality and behavior ever after. John B. Watson’s Little Albert Experiment proved you could give infants phobias by exposing them to upsetting loud noises. And perhaps the most troubling of these cases would be the Obedience to Authority experiments carried out in 1960 and ’61 by Yale professor Stanley Milgram—the results of which and the methods used are among the most controversial of the past century. The new film Experimenter seeks to go inside the mind of the man who thought up this test and several others, but instead plays out like the audience is the one being tested.
Milgram is played by Peter Sarsgaard who is also our omniscient narrator, referring to his children who haven’t been born yet and his own death before we’ve seen it depicted. Early on in the film, we see him meeting his soon-to-be wife, played by Winona Ryder, who eventually becomes a witness to these experiments—though she never really feels like anything other than a mostly-supportive and positive influence, likely because the real woman is still alive and was a consultant on the movie. The objectivity of the filmmaker is very much called into question.
I suppose I ought to briefly rundown the experiment, though the movie more or less explains how it works without ever touching on how Milgram came to think of it: two men are brought into a room and told that one of them will be a “teacher” and the other will be a “learner.” They’re told the test is to see how people learn through negative reinforcement. The “learner” goes into another room and is told for every answer to a multiple-choice word memory test he gets wrong, he’ll get an ever-increasing electric shock going from 90 to 450 volts. These shocks will be administered by the “teacher” who is sitting in the main room with the scientist watching. This test is false, though. The “learner” is always the same man (and he’s a plant at that). As the test goes on, the “shocks” elicit shrieks of pain and calls to stop from the “learner,” and usually the “teacher” will want to stop but will continue after the scientist instructs them to do so. 65% of all the tests done—hundreds in total—showed that people would do as instructed even if they thought they were causing grave harm and injury to the subject.
You’re probably thinking, “my, that sounds like a very interesting test.” And it is; the scenes depicting the obedience test are indeed the most compelling. Actors such as Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, Taryn Manning, and Anton Yelchin all play people who think they’re hurting the man in the other room, played by Jim Gaffigan. The sets during this section look as realistic as possible and it feels like we’re actually watching what might really have happened.
Elsewhere in the movie, though, things get very strange. Several scenes are filmed in front of a back projection, often with black-and-white images, to make it seem immediately false. We also cruise through several years of Milgram’s life, including a few other of his tests, and see how the public and psychological community responded harshly to the findings of the obedience tests. There’s even some laughable, truly cringe-inducing scenes during a time when Milgram’s book was used as the basis for a TV movie. Kellen Lutz plays William Shatner and Dennis Haysbert plays Ossie Davis, the stars of said film, and it’s suddenly like we’re watching a parody. Of what, I have no idea.
In the end, Experimenter feels a lot more like an avant garde play than it does a movie, but I think that’s probably exactly what Michael Almereyda was going for. Like a lot of the people in Milgram’s life, I wasn’t sure if I was merely an observer of if I was part of some larger experiment—I almost felt like I’d missed some kind of joke. Either that, or I’d watched a just-okay movie about a really interesting subject and I’m trying to make it coalesce in my head. Both are the likely desired effect.
Image: Magnolia Pictures
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!