Somber yet simultaneously mischievous, Michael Almereyda’s (Nadja) latest and most vigorous picture yet, Experimenter, is a visually and verbally spellbinding showpiece. Beginning in 1961 at Yale, renowned social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) wielded the baton on a series of psychological experiments in which subjects believed they were administering electrical shocks to an amiable and innocent subject, a stranger, in an adjacent room.
Even though shouts from the subject being electrocuted were audible, as were pleas to stop, a lab-coated administrator would insist the subjects continue until the test was complete. The results of the tests, the behaviour of the subjects, and the ramifications of the results – 65% of participants finished the test, knowingly inflicting needless pain on another individual – is the trigger for one of the most invigorating, intelligent, and polemical pictures of the year.
Curiously structured with chronological to and fro, fourth wall asides, and arcs and eddies into surrealism – including a repeated elephant cameo, and deliberate rear projection – Almereyda still manages to present his treatise with an amenable charm. The aforementioned pachyderm first rears when Milgram mentions the Holocaust.
It’s a fitting conceit as the Milgram experiment essentially aggrandizes the dark reaches of the human heart and our willingness to bend to authority. Furthermore, Milgram’s parents were Jewish refugees reared in the 1940s.
Also making a couplet in Experimenter is a line from Søren Kierkegaard; “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.” Admittedly, Almereyda’s film is thickset with these types of extracts, reflecting something of a philosophical volatility that elbows and spurs the viewer into a participatory capacity, like the act of viewing is corresponding to one of Milgram’s experiments.
The cast is uniformly strong, and includes plum turns from Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Taryn Manning and Anton Yelchin. But beyond the histrionics and the biopic prosaism – most of which are truncated anyway, this is less a memoir as it is cinematic chalk talk – Experimenter is an old school indie arthouse saturnalia. Heck, Josh Hamilton even turns up in a small role which, for me anyway, harkened back to the heyday of Whit Stillman (Metropolitan, Barcelona).
Experimenter is a bracing tonic of a film, like Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre it haunts and hypnotizes, sending the audience away changed, troubled, and utterly impressed.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)