The title Experimenter can be taken multiple ways. On one hand the film portrays the experiments of sociological psychologist Stanley Milgram, which would include the Milgram Experiment.
The flip side of the coin is the experimental nature of the film. Even for an indie film, Experimenter breaks down walls between the film and the viewer, and adds surreal touches, which includes an elephant that just happens to be minding its own business walking in the background of a hallway scene. Such a bizarre touch wouldn’t be out of place in a Buñuel film.
Likewise director Michael Almereyda has made a career out of picturesque indie films like Nadja (1994), Twister (1989), and the Ethan Hawke starring Hamlet (2000).
Experimenter occasionally reverts to Peter Sarsgaard, who plays the lead character of Milgram, directly addressing the audience while the background is depicted with projected images. A good deal of Experimenter recounts the actual experiments themselves.
In a typical progression Experimenter moves through Milgram’s career from the early ‘60s and then shows that his exploits were made into a television movie in the 1970s. William Shatner played the Milgram character and in Experimenter we have an actor (Kellan Lutz) portraying Shatner portraying Milgram while Sarsgaard watches from behind the camera.
Milgram died in 1984 at the age of 51 of a heart attack. At the end of his life, as Sarsgaard as Milgram is being admitted into a hospital, he quips about the nurse being one of the character types that his research has defined.
The Milgram Experiment itself opens the film. Two participants are chosen as teacher and student. The teacher administers electric shocks in an increasing degree of voltage to the student who is in the next room. The student is actually a fellow grad student in on the experiment and they scream and moan whenever they receive the shocks. The purpose of the experiment is to see how far the teacher-person will go before they refuse to continue. In most cases they don’t refuse because in this society you do what you are ordered to do. Milgram was specifically influenced by the Holocaust.
Another of Milgram’s theories of human behavior is demonstrated by putting envelopes that need to be mailed on random windshields. The envelopes contain addresses that range from an everyday address to one that would constitute, say, a hate group. By seeing how many envelopes reach their destination it determines how people in select ethnic neighborhoods react to the various implications in said mailing.
Experimenter is a film that will have a long shelf life in academic circles. An educated audience acclimated to art films or films with a sardonic edge will also enjoy the proceedings. Experimenter itself is a kind of experiment to see how a cross section of the movie going public reacts to its unfolding. One can just imagine an experiment where psychologists observe a crowd of people who think they are going to see a movie set in the Marvel universe but when the movie begins it is Experimenter.
Experimenter opens this weekend in an exclusive engagement at the downtown Sundance Cinemas Houston.
— Michael Bergeron