By Nick Gonzales
Herald Staff Writer
“Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story” probes not only the subject of the film, psychologist Stanley Milgram and his controversial experiments, but the psychology of the viewer as well.
In 1961, Milgram (played by Peter Sarsgaard) conducted a series of experiments at Yale University.
Participants were asked to administer a memory test to another volunteer in a different room. When the test-taker made a mistake, an observer asked the test-giver to deliver an increasingly harsh electric shock to the other volunteer. The test-taker – who was actually in on the experiment and faking the pain – would then beg to end the test more and more before falling silent entirely.
When instructed to continue by the observer, the majority of volunteers kept dispensing the seemingly painful punishment.
With the help of a star-studded cast featuring the likes of Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan and John Leguizamo, “Experimenter” brings the emotional intensity of the experiments and their fallout to life.
In addition to following the effects on the study’s participants, who often learned troubling things about themselves, the film looks at Milgram’s life. Born to parents who barely evaded the grasp of Adolf Eichmann, Milgram conducts his study to find out how average people could allow the Holocaust to occur. As the results of the experiments revolutionize how psychologists think about human nature, some begin to think that in deceiving the volunteers, it was Milgram, not the test-givers, who displayed true cruelty.
While watching “Experimenter,” it is impossible not to ponder what Milgram’s study says about humanity. The film, however, is not content to let the audience wrestle with just that one line of thought. The visual style of the movie is deliberately artificial. Sets are surreally stark and barren and, at times, the background is obviously being projected onto a surface behind the actors. (At one point, there is literally an unmentioned elephant in the room.) Director Michael Almereyda clearly wants watchers to consider the relationship between deception and reality, too.
“Experimenter” is thought-provoking, inventive and sometimes hilarious. Its dreamlike adaptation of one of the most important psychological studies of the 20th century ought to spark quite a few post-movie conversations and debates.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Nick Gonzales is one of The Durango Herald newsroom’s resident film buffs. He welcomes movie recommendations. Follow him on Twitter @lackingzones.