Two men walk into a laboratory to participate in a scientific experiment on the psychological effects of punishment. One of the men will be given the role of “teacher,” while the other will be given the role of “learner.” The two men will be placed in separate rooms, and will only be able to communicate with a one-way intercom (the teacher will be permitted to speak to the learner, but not the other way around). The teacher will ask the learner a series of questions. If the learner answers one of the questions incorrectly, the teacher will flip a switch that will give the learner a small electric shock. Additional incorrect answers will be met with additional shocks that increase in power each time. Eventually, the shocks become so painful that the learner starts screaming (he doesn't have access to the intercom, but the teacher can hear him through the walls). The teacher hesitates, and looks to the scientist overseeing the survey for instruction. “Please continue,” the scientist says. The teacher continues, even as the screams get louder and are eventually replaced by frightening silence. The study is conducted many more times, and on almost every occasion, the results are exactly the same.
This controversial study was devised by social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, Black Mass), who has no interest in learning anything about the psychological effects of punishment. The “learner” is an actor (Jim Gaffigan, Hot Pursuit) who is faking his screams of pain, and the study's actual purpose is to examine humanity's curious tendency to submit to authority even in situations where doing so would conflict with their own conscience. If Milgram can find some answers, he may have a key to exploring the madness behind some of the world's greatest tragedies: how dictators rise, how genocides occur, how systemic abuse continues to thrive. Alas, he's also going to have to convince his peers that the study is a legitimate exploration of an important subject and not merely a monstrous, pseudoscientific con job.
Milgrim's ideas (and his efforts to find the funding and support necessary to continue exploring them) are examined with both thoughtfulness and playfulness in Experimenter, a better-than-average biopic which keeps the blandly conventional biographical details to a minimum and places more emphasis on the unique things that make its subject an interesting figure. Even better, the film actually lives up to its title, mimicking (if not matching) Milgrim in the way it consistently uses surprising, unconventional methods to achieve its goals.
There's a good deal of The Wolf of Wall Street and House of Cards in the way the film gives its main character the freedom to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly, but the big difference in this case is that Sarsgaard's Milgram never really seems liberated by this cinematic superpower. He's a smart but fretful figure who always seems to be halfway through solving some ridiculously complex problem, and there are moments when you sense that the film's version of Milgrim senses that he's just a dead guy being portrayed by an actor in a movie (note the terrifically diabolical shot that takes a God's-eye view of Milgram as he's worriedly talking about humans being content to do whatever authority figures ask them to do).
The film has a tense realism during the lab scenes (which are themselves filled with all kinds of elaborate lies), but turns deliberately artificial and playful elsewhere. An elephant follows Milgram around from time to time (symbolism!), many scenes unfold against a static black-and-white backdrop that makes the film look a lot like a stage play, and Milgram is constantly “breaking character” mid-scene to give us a crucial bit of biographical information we might have missed or to offer his thoughts on a certain situation. It's a great performance from Sarsgaard, who resists the temptation to turn the part into a flamboyant acting showcase and delivers the sort of quietly committed, persuasively complicated turn that has made him a considerable asset to nearly every film he has appeared in.
The supporting cast is solid, too, particularly Winona Ryder (Beetlejuice) as the woman who eventually becomes Milgram's wife and perpetually curious confidant. Gaffigan's natural “aw, shucks” warmth makes an amusing contrast to tortured “character” Milgram asks him to play, and there are brief but powerful turns from John Leguizamo (Carlito's Way), Anthony Edwards (Top Gun) and Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) as some of the most memorable human faces from Milgram's study. We know that they're not actually hurting anyone, but they don't, and it gives their assorted portraits of moral conflict tremendous power. A pair of performances that don't quite work: Dennis Haysbert (24) and Kellan Lutz (Twilight) doing unconvincing imitations of Ossie Davis and William Shatner (who starred in a cheesy '70s TV movie about Milgrim's life).
On multiple occasions, various characters in Experimenter quote Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” The implied frustration beneath that quote fuels much of the film. This is a restless, searching movie that often feels like it's tackling a whole semester's worth of ideas in a mere 90-something minutes, but that isn't really a liability. In fact, the film's inability to really answer most of its complicated questions feels like an appropriate extension of its “be like Milgram” ethos: Milgram's own life was cut short rather quickly, while he was still just chipping away at the tip of the iceberg. While he was with us, he asked some questions worth asking. As long as “good people” continue to get swept into playing some role in human atrocities at the command of people in power, we must keep asking them.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2015