Two men agree to take part in an experiment. One is the learner. The other, the teacher. The learner enters a room. The teacher, in another room, proceeds, via a series of questions, to test the learner on a sequence of words. Should the learner get the sequence incorrect, the teacher administers a shock. Each incorrect answer, the shock increases in strength.
This is how Experimenter begins. This is a true story.
Written and directed by Michael Almereyda, Experimenter is the real life tale of scientist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), who in 1961 began the work that he would eventually publish in the groundbreaking book, Obedience to Authority, his authoritative study on human nature. The film details Milgram’s trials and tribulations, the divisive reaction to his work, and his long marriage to wife Sasha (Winona Ryder).
Experimenter is hands down one of my favourite films of 2015. While sociologists and psychologists may be familiar with Stanley Milgram’s work, I certainly wasn’t, and I found his story immensely compelling. This is in no small part because of the exceptional work that Sarsgaard does in the role. The actor delivers a chameleon-like performance, shifting his posture and mannerisms in ways that I found quite revealing. Throughout the film, Milgram often breaks the fourth wall, explaining to the audience time and place and context, but this technique doesn’t take away from Experimenter at all. In fact, from where I was sitting, it simply brought me deeper into the story, increasing my understanding of the time and of Milgram’s work.
While her role is significantly less flashy than Sarsgaard’s, for those of us that grew up with Winona Ryder, it was wonderful to see her back in a lead role. She plays Sasha as very much the rock that Milgram leans on as the public discovers, disputes and debates Obedience to Authority and the other experiments Milgram does over the two decades the film covers. While there are small, supporting turns from other familiar faces, including John Leguizamo and Anthony Edwards, the success of Experimenter really rests on the shoulders of Peter Sarsgaard; if there’s any justice, he’ll get at least a nomination or two for his work.
Experimenter is an under the radar film, far from the genre flicks and box office hits we often look at on the site. It’s also worthy of your time, if you love biographies or period pieces or simply great movies. The film is out on October 16th via iTunes and VOD.