Review: Experimenter Features a Fine, Cerebral Performance from Peter Sarsgaard

Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in Experimenter (Magnolia Pictures)

Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in Experimenter (Magnolia Pictures)

Earlier this year, a film entitled The Stanford Prison Experiment saw limited release here in the U.S. and abroad. The picture, which was received well critically, was based upon a dark, sociological study conducted at Stanford University in the 1970s that has long courted controversy in the psychiatric community. Now, the film industry returns to the well with Experimenter, a provocative take on a different brutal experiment with wide-ranging societal implications: the 1961 Milgram Experiments.

The titular experiment was purportedly designed to examine human response to authority in order to better understand why groups of people respond obediently to fascistic regimes. Stoic, distant Yale professor Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) created said experiment to coincide with the war-crime tribunal of noted Nazi Adolf Eichmann, with a provocative thesis in mind: Was Eichmann truly a murderous villain, or was he simply “following orders?”

To test this theory, Milgram split randomized pairs of students into two roles: One would be the “teacher” who would ask questions of the other, lesser “student.” When the student answered incorrectly, the teacher would then administer a strong electric shock through electrodes hooked up to their body. The more answers the student got wrong, the more potent the voltage would become – eventually reaching near-fatal levels.

Unlike The Stanford Prison Experiment, which primarily focused on its actual study, Experimenter writer-director Michael Almereyda is really more interested in presenting a nuanced perspective of Stanley Milgram himself, following his personal and professional travails as he attempted to convince the mainstream psychiatric world that the experiments had merit beyond pure sadism. Milgram carried out the study nearly 20 times over the course of 15 years, obsessively cataloguing and comparing the results in order to prove his grand point that anyone can become evil under the right circumstances.

Though Almereyda’s script sags at points, he manages to keep things interesting on a directorial level by eliciting a fine, cerebral performance from Sarsgaard, and by peppering the background with distinguished character actors such as Anton Yelchin and John Leguizamo. In addition, a resurgent Winona Ryder earns high marks for her delicate portrayal of Milgram’s wife Sasha.

Indeed, Experimenter may be covering a well-worn topic to anyone who ever took a basic high-school ethics class, but by narrowing his focus to the brilliant mind behind the iconic experiment, Almereyda manages to present old findings in a bold, brave new light.



Magnolia Pictures
In theaters now

4 Stars

Films are rated on a scale of 5 stars (must-see), 4 stars (exceptional), 3 stars (solid), 2 stars (average) and 1 star (unworthy).

Dash Finley is a Staff Reporter for Living Out Loud - LA, covering entertainment.

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