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    Experimenter (2015): Movie Review

    "A stylistic off-perspective biopic of a controversial social scientist.” 

    Peter Sarsgaard stars as Stanley Milgram in Michael Almereyda’s low-key but stylish biopic Experimenter. This portrait of the controversial American social psychologist is more of an exploration of human nature than an in-depth inquiry into the man behind the science.

    The film opens in a laboratory in 1961 Yale University where Milgram (Sarsgaard) is conducting his experiment on obedience. An American-born Jew of Romanian-Hugarian descent, Milgram has always been fascinated with the heartless genocide and the workings of obedience and violence during the Holocaust era. In his experiment, two subjects are assigned with the roles of “Teacher” and “Learner.” Teacher, placed in an adjacent room, will have to ask a series of multiple-choice questions to Learner. In the event that Learner answers the question wrongly, Teacher will have to administer a button-controlled electric shock, the intensity of it increases with each subsequent incorrect answers. The shocks are not real as Learner is Milgram’s collaborator and accountant, Jim McDonough (Jim Gaffigan), and all the cries of pain are mere recordings. The Teachers does not know them and Milgram studies their reactions and behavior throughout the experiment from a two-way mirror. Though many of them sneer and sigh each time they shock the other person, majority of them still follow orders from an authoritative figure.

    Milgram’’s experiment raises ethical issues. However, he pushes on, publishes the results, and then moves on to Harvard and later to City University of New York. He conducts more socially significant studies but none other is as groundbreaking as his “obedience to authority” which he lives to see dramatized as a television movie in 1976. 

    Experimenter is an out-of-the-box biographical drama. It strays from traditional biopic as the subject’s works are given more importance than his biographical milestones. It makes us excited about the man’s genius rather than the man himself. In essence, the film is a mannered study of human nature as it lets us immerse into the mind of Milgram as he seeks answers to why we behave the way we do. His works are stirring, particularly “obedience to authority” because it makes us understand and realize how anyone can be easily compelled to do unimaginable acts. His disputable canons also include the anti-social behavior, the lost letter, and the small-world phenomenon which gave birth to the theory of “six degrees of separation.” With vivid description and demonstration, the film gives ample running time for each experiment.

    The film is also artistically stylish in its presentation. The protag explains mostly everything and he speaks directly to the camera, as if the audience is conversing with him and he is addressing them. His tone is expressionless though and his lines can be over-serious, dry or darkly comic. It is an interesting approach but sometimes it feels uncomfortable and absurd especially when Milgram abruptly breaks away from the sequence to deliver his narration. The movie also mixes actual locations with rear projection and breakaway sets. In one scene, an elephant even appears in Milgram’s background.

    Unfortunately, there is nothing much to learn about the social life of the famed social psychologist. His relationship with his his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) to whom he had two children is the closest the film has gotten to the conventions of biopic. Perfunctorily, we learn that Milgram is neither an easy husband nor father but his family is as ever supportive to his ideals.

    The film is backed up with strong performances, particularly from its lead actors. Sarsgaard, with his still face and dead emotions, effectively channels the curiosity and mystery of Milgram. Ryder is a warm and sweet presence in this laid-back drama. There are also plenty of cameos from several actors, like John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin and Anthony Edwards as test subjects, and Dennis Haysbert and Kellan Lutz in the movie adaptation of Milgram’s work, and each one makes the most of their limited screen time.

    Despite its technical genius and solid performances, Experimenter lacks enough luster to be award-winning or commercially successful. Still, the film is original, absorbing and thought-provoking. 

    Production companies: BB Film Productions, FJ Productions, Intrinsic Value Films 
    Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Kellan Lutz, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo, Dennis Haysbert, Kellan Lutz, Anton Yelchin, Anthony Edwards, Lori Singer, Edoardo Ballerini, Josh Hamilton, Vondie Curtis Hall 
    Director-screenwriter: Michael Almereyda 
    Producers: Michael Almereyda , Uri Singer, Fabio Golombek, Aimee Schoof, Isen Robbins, Per Melita, Danny A. Abeckaser 
    Executive producers: Jeff Rice, Claudio Szajman, Rogerio Ferezin, Christa Campbell, Lati Grobman, Trevor Crafts, Lee Broda, Mark Myers 
    Director of photography: Ryan Samul 
    Production designer: Deana Sidney 
    Costume designer: Kama K. Royz 
    Editor: Kathryn J. Schubert 
    Music: Bryan Senti


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