Film Review: Experimenter

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By Michael Graves


Earlier this year saw the release of The Stanford Prison Experiment, about the infamous prisoner/guard psychological experiment at Stanford University in 1971.  Now, as an unintended and unofficial companion piece, we go back ten years earlier to the experiments that started the ball rolling.  The life of social psychologist Stanley Milgram is the subject of the new movie Experimenter.

Milgram was infamous for his devising of the ‘obedience to authority’ tests while he was a professor at Yale in 1961. Volunteers enlisted to administer ‘electric shocks’ on other test subjects who failed to correctly answer a series of questions.  But these volunteers were unwittingly the test subjects themselves, administering no such shocks to who was in fact a shill of the researchers. The whole experiment was designed to observe acquiescence to authority, and the only real shock was the revelation almost two-thirds of participants were prepared to continue at the behest of the organisers, despite mounting evidence of their co-subject experiencing extreme physical and psychological distress.

As Stanley Milgram, Peter Sarsgaard gives a measured and controlled performance, effectively balancing the man’s exterior aloofness with his inner drive – obsession, even – to find answer to the unanswerable: how could otherwise ordinary men and women aid and abet the atrocities of the Holocaust?  As Milgram’s wife, Winona Ryder is somewhat warmer and by now a world away from the teen roles through which we came to know her.

Milgram was famed for other experiments too, such as his ‘small world experiment’ that originated the ‘six degrees of separation’ concept.  But, although these are touched on in the film, it is his ‘obedience’ tests for which he will always be associated.

As a film, Experimenter is more cerebral than emotional, strangely distant, and not above such heavy-handed symbolism as to actually depict an elephant in the room (even identified as such in the closing credits).  And the deliberate use of archaic film techniques, such as obviously false rear-projection for driving scenes, seems to draw attention to the artificiality and controlled environments the researchers create.  Breaking the fourth wall is a simple way to impart information and back-story to the audience, but all of this comes at the expense of greater dramatic engagement.


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