Experimenter is a biopic that has grand ambitions, but falters when it comes to execution.
Let’s bitch it out…
Experimenter is an unusual choice for Fantasia Film Festival in that it’s not really a genre film at all. The film is much more of a traditional biopic, focusing on the life of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), the man who performed a series of revolutionary obedience experiments that are now included in every introductory psychology course. Migram is a fascinating subject for a film because his tests reveal a great deal about human nature, but unfortunately writer and director Michael Almereyda makes some very poor choices in both of roles and the film suffers as a result.
Milgram’s name may not be familiar to everyday folks, but the details of his experiments are actually well-known. He is the American scientist who, in the early 60s, performed a series of tests that asked subjects to facilitate a word match test to another person in an adjacent room. For each incorrect match, the “Teacher” would administer an electric shock to the “Student”, starting at 45 volts and escalating all the way up to a maximum of 450 volts. What teachers didn’t know is that the student and the scientist were both actors and the test was actually designed to evaluate whether they would stop the test if the student cried out, asked to stop or stopped responding. The revelatory results confirmed that, contrary to expectations, 65% of individuals completed the test and administered the maximum level of shock, proving that the majority of individuals will do as they as told, regardless of the suffering of others.
The obedience experiments form the backbone of the film and large segments are spent on various subjects going through the scenario, including a bevy of well-known/recognized actors like Anthony Edwards (ER), John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) and Orange Is The New Black‘s Taryn Manning. Watching people struggle with their emotions evokes a sympathetic response in viewers as we question whether we would perform similarly (in the face of statistics that suggest most of us would).
Unfortunately the experiments only form part of the film and whenever we deviate from them, the film tends to go awry. For the most part Experimenter is organized chronologically so the events of Milgram’s obedience experiments overlap with his burgeoning relationship with girlfriend and future wife Sasha (Winona Ryder). The actors lack chemistry so it is difficult to invest in their marriage, particularly in the latter part of the film when things get tough for them. The film fails to make Sasha or their two children real characters, leaving Ryder adrift despite her considerable charm. As Milgram, Sarsgaard has more to do, but he too struggles to bring the man to life. His most memorable acting decision is to keep Milgram’s head bowed and sport some truly unfortunate facial hair as the film moves through the 70s and 80s.
The biggest issue, however, is the unusual decision to include direct address in the film. Not only are we privy to Milgram’s inner thoughts via omniscient voice-over throughout large parts of the film, he frequently speaks to us directly, breaking the fourth wall to explain parts of the experiment and how he feels. I’ll concede that I have an issue with these kind of artificial narrative devices because I associate them with lazy screenwriting. The combination of both voice-over and direct address is incredibly intrusive, which is frustrating because the vast majority of the content is either superfluous, or could have been communicated in another format. In some ways this seems like Almereyda’s attempt to break the audience’s obedience to traditional narrative by going against conventional Hollywood norms, but if this is the case, it is more frustrating than successful.
Add to this the unfathomable decision to include visual tricks that perform the same function. At several points when Stanley is speaking to us, a large elephant follows him down the hall (a literal elephant in the room) in order to ensure that we recognize what is and is not being said in the dialogue. There are also a few points when, rather than shoot on location or use a naturalistic setting, an artificial backdrop is used. This has the effect of making it seem as though we are watching a play. These stylistic decisions are obviously deliberate since they appear in some scenes and not others, but they are infrequent enough that it seems more like Almereyda is trying out his own (unsuccessful) filmmaking experiment.
The fact that the film ends suddenly and with a whimper rather than a bang clinches the deal. It is obvious that we are meant to feel something when Stanley dies unexpectedly at an early age, but there’s no emotional connection to fall back on. As the credits roll, the impact of Milgram’s controversial experiments are reiterated (via voice-over, naturally). The relevance of the experiments is particularly apt whenever atrocities are committed on order, but this is just a reminder of an argument that the film half-heartedly raises, but fails to examine in any depth. Unfortunately thanks to a muddled screenplay and strange directorial decisions, Experimenter ultimately doesn’t deliver the goods.
Bottom Line: The film is worth seeing for its investigation of Milgram’s experiments, but this is certainly no Kinsey.
Experimenter will be released October 16, 2015