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NYFF 15: ‘Experimenter’ is an unconventional and refreshing biopic

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Experimenter
Written by Michael Almereyda
Directed by Michael Almereyda
USA, 2015

Not everyone may know of social psychologist Stanley Milgram, but his experiments revealed some very human actions that people experience everyday, as explored in the film Experimenter. Sure, the 60s provided some controversial experiments that were performed on college campuses, but one can’t help but ask why Milgram’s experiments were seen as so radical. That’s what writer-director Michael Almereyda delves into with his new film, to very unconventional degrees.

Milgram’s most notable and controversial experiment is shown right at the beginning of the film. He explores the concept of obedience to authority by making his subjects believe that they are delivering increasingly painful electric shocks to the person in the next room. When the subject shows hesitation and at times mild defiance, the person overseeing the experiment tells them that they must continue, sometimes adding that they have no choice. The results indicate that most people do what they’re told, even if it means inflicting pain on others.

The experiment itself is fascinating. The first third of the film shows Milgram testing various subjects, with only one person refusing to continue with it. Most of the protests against the experiment are about the blatant deception that Milgram puts his subjects through. Instead of feeling sympathy for the people subjected to the experiment, it’s hard not to align with Milgram, who just wants to discover reasons for certain human behavior. While the film touches on other experiments Milgram carried out throughout his life, it ultimately comes back to his obedience experiment. Frankly, the scenes revolving around them are the most captivating.

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Peter Sarsgaard plays Dr. Milgram, the film’s main subject. He himself tells his story through voiceover and by breaking the fourth wall on occasion. It can startle the viewer a little bit, especially since expectations lean toward this film being a standard biopic. To the benefit of the film, it most certainly and refreshingly is not. Almereyda chooses a different route. It’s not entirely clear why he decides to do so, but somehow it works for Experimenter.

Now to address the elephant in the room—well, technically the hallway. In two scenes, an elephant appears behind Milgram as he is walking down a school hallway talking to the camera. Some viewers may anticipate that the elephant’s appearance will be explained. It never is. It’s entirely possible to spend countless sleepless nights trying to decipher the meaning of the elephant. But all it may be is an eccentric nod to the own film’s excessive self-awareness. It’s tempting to dwell on it, but it takes time away from focusing on the other great elements that the film has to offer.

Another element also worth looking at is the odd, and some may say unnecessary, use of green screen. It’s blaring in its intentionality while questionable in its use. It establishes Milgram’s apparent control of his own story. As he is his own narrator, his house is naturally made of real set pieces; other locations are not worthy of looking real and polished, like the house of his old professor. This choice is another nod to the film’s self-awareness, a blatant attempt to shift the ideals of how a biopic should be. The film itself is an experiment carried out by the director to see how far he can break the rules before people start to protest.

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The cast consists of recognizable actors whom a person normally wouldn’t picture in a room together. The most surprising is Jim Gaffigan, the food-loving comedian, filling in a supporting role. He appears to be branching out (as many comedians are doing these days), and it works for this film. While it’s no shock that he provides much of the comic relief, he still blends in for the most part and works in tandem with the rest of the cast. Everyone may immediately recognize him as a comedian, but he is truly part of the group. His reputation doesn’t detract from the film’s tone or credibility. Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram also stands out in a brilliant way. He usually plays key supporting roles or the bad guy, so it’s telling that Almereyda chose him as his leading man, and yet it makes sense. He adds enough quirkiness to the character to fit into the world that Almereyda has created, but still makes Milgram relatable and dynamic. His chemistry with Winona Ryder, who plays Milgram’s wife, is a bonus, and she also fits in seamlessly into the strangeness of everything.

Experimenter is at its best in its small, fleeting moments. Sometimes the most memorable part of a scene will be a character’s facial expression or a quick movement they make. It’s fitting for what is essentially a small film that chooses subtlety over showiness. While people may deem the odd narrative style unnecessary for a true story that could have easily gone for simplicity, Almereyda saw more to this story and this man. He acknowledges Milgram’s own aversion to conventional experimentation by making this movie about his life as unconventional as possible. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s a much-needed break from the standard biopic fare, and it exposes something heartbreakingly real about the human condition.


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