Film Review: Experimenter


Directed by

  • Michael Almereyda


  • Winona Ryder
  • Taryn Manning
  • Peter Sarsgaard
  • Lori Singer

Release Year

  • 2015


  • PG-13

The string that unites the various chapters of Experimenter — a strange, disjointed, and occasionally beautiful biopic about the controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram — is a quote attributed to Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” This seems like a fitting thesis for a film that seeks to understand a man best known as a cautionary tale, albeit one whose influence remains a source of contention in the psychology community.

Conducted at Yale University in 1961 and inspired by the Jewish Holocaust, the Milgram experiments sought to answer the question of how civilized human beings come to participate in inhumane acts such as genocide. The study itself, as illustrated by the film’s extended opening scene, measures the willingness of participants to obey an authority figure (in this case, a “doctor” in a gray lab coat) who instructs them to perform an act that inflicts physical pain on another person. They’re instructed to ask that person a series of questions, and for every wrong answer they are to administer an electric shock of increasing voltage. Though the person in the other room is perfectly safe, the subject does not know this; all he can hear are the sounds of anguish and the authority figure’s continued insistence to continue with the experiment.

Much to Milgram’s personal dismay, the subjects in his study failed to raise a protest more often than not. “They hesitate, sigh, tremble, and groan … but they advance to the next switch,” he tells the viewer in one of the film’s many fourth-wall-breaking monologues. It’s startling when Milgram, played by the dead-eyed and emotionally elusive Peter Sarsgaard, first turns to the camera and addresses the viewer, and it signals a more impressionistic approach to the biopic than the one taken in Steve Jobs and other recent examples. In one early scene that will surely make you sit up straighter, he walks down a hallway at Yale followed by an elephant. The symbolism is a bit on-the-nose, but it’s effective; the real elephant in the room, we are to understand, is Milgram’s background as the son of two immigrants who narrowly escaped the Holocaust.

This detail and others that follow throw a wrench in the popular interpretation of Milgram as a callous sadist, but director Michael Almereyda also resists portraying his protagonist as a heroic figure above the judgement of his peers. The conversation around Milgram has always centered on ethics — what is a fair and reasonable amount of stress to inflict on subjects in the name of science? Experimenter never quite provides an answer to that question, but it does suggest that Milgram’s work comes from a place of real (and conflicted) empathy.

The film’s central irony lies in the fact that Milgram himself embodies some of the same qualities he finds so ugly in his subjects. He is a man so blinded by his obsession with obedience that he cannot see how his own methods might be interpreted as an abuse of power in their own right. When a student in his Harvard class accuses him of deception, he reacts by interrupting her and shutting her down. He becomes similarly prickly when confronted by a panel of his peers, and it’s clear that he looks down on his detractors as a nuisance that’s not to be taken seriously. Milgram’s unwillingness to engage and see the other side carries over into his relationship with his wife Sasha, played here by Winona Ryder. Rarely has the dynamic between an on-screen couple been so hard to pin down; even their courtship scene seems perfunctory, and oddly lacking in any real romance.

That’s the thing about Experimenter — Milgram’s periodic monologues may be ripe with exposition, but the actual action in the film depends so much on inference and subtle character ticks that it risks leaving the viewer confused. Whether you think Sarsgaard and Ryder are brilliant depends on your willingness to read between the lines, as the former appears locked inside his own mind for long stretches and the latter willfully relegates herself to the fringes of the story.

This is not to say that the film is ineffective in its exploration of its characters, only that it challenges the viewer to arrive at his or her own conclusions. Experimenter makes this task more difficult by hopping back and forth between a world we recognize and one that exists chiefly within Milgram’s imagination. Several scenes in the film play out on sets designed to look purposefully fake; in another, Milgram spontaneously breaks out into song while walking down a crowded New York City street. All of these details would be more typical of a theatre production than a film, and one suspects that Experimenter would translate nicely to the stage.

However it’s presented, this story deserves credit for seeking out nuance in a person so often vilified in his field and in pop culture. To return to Kierkegaard’s words, “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards,” and to judge Milgram so harshly is to negate the complexities of his life. We do not always know if what we are doing is right or if it is wrong. The best we can do, this film seems to say, is to believe in our objectives and hope that we do not become the things we fear the most in other people.