Experimenter Review

While the best of experiments do not need the social strings to be plucked alongside their research, it surely helps the notoriety of it when the two fall beside one another. The Stanford Prison Experiment springs to mind, and Experimenter would also, had its title not been so generic. Yet that was not an issue for the former, but its controversy is so closely linked to its title. Experimenter is, effectively, a biopic of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) and his electric shock-oriented experiment, this Peter Sarsgaard starring piece looks into the effect of his work on a haunted American public dealing with the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Can good people inflict pain on those they have been told have wronged? Yes, absolutely. But it is the extent of this infliction that Milgram’s experiment was meant to cover, and director Michael Almereyda is meant to consider. 

We mean to do many things with our time on this planet. Almereyda is unfortunately not using that time to detail the nitty, gritty details of Milgram’s experiment. His tone does not settle well with the style he exhibits. Slick and scrubbed rooms with white lab coats and iconography that captures all the stereotypes of the early 1960s well enough. Parties with cardigan-wearing guys and dinner dresses for the girls. Experimenter certainly showcases the mechanisms and stylings of the time, but it does it with such a lack of song and dance that it feels rather relaxed. Had it been less relaxed, there would be less time for Almereyda to deliberate on the core of his story. He wishes to discuss and discover the impact of these experiments, and in doing so his casting is well-meaning, but his editing is choppy and unconvincing.  His desire to figure out the appeal of power sees him powerless when trying to indicate the romantic or briefer points of his storyline.

Family comedian Jim Gaffigan is a surprising draw here. His work should feel out of place, but his natural ability to blur himself into darker themes is inspiring for those light-hearted stand-ups looking to ease themselves into harsher roles. James McDonagh’s (Gaffigan) initial appearance bases itself on the ability to turn an unnatural horror into a commonplace misconception. That excellent ability to develop atmosphere while Sarsgaard delivers snooze-inducing narration is a thorough strength of not just Gaffigan, but Winona Ryder and Anthony Edwards too. Both give great performances. Sarsgaard does too when his mouth moves when we hear his voice.  

There are ethical queries that are not exhibited throughout Experimenter, but the emotional and mental toll it takes on the subjects that take this experiment is explored well enough. The slow reading of words, the repetition of “incorrect” and the odd stares the pain inflicter gives are remarkable. He cannot see the pain he causes, yet knows it is happening. Or, at least, believes it is. That is the real strength of Almereyda’s piece, but it is not highlighted all that often. Those brief moments are worth the wait, though, and Sarsgaard is the usual strong draw for a piece that needs a slice of unhinged animosity. He brings that to the screen so well but is surrounded by weaker moments not focusing on the Stanley Milgrim experiment.  

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