'Experimenter': Sundance Review

An involving portrait of a man that's composed more of ideas than biographical data

Odds are, you would have followed instructions too.

A biopic that feels more like a ride-along on an exploration of human nature, Michael Almereyda's Experimenter does offer a kind of portrait of controversial social scientist Stanley Milgram, but it's a portrait less interested in biographical milestones than in the questions Milgram sought to answer about why we behave the way we do. When we do see personal drama (a tenure denied, a denouncement on the sidewalk), it's almost exclusively in relation to the way Milgram investigated those questions and the answers he seemed to find. Technically puckish where appropriate but grounded by strong performances from Peter Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder, the film is not awards bait but makes some Big Thinker biographies that are look staid. It seems certain to be the deliberately fringe-dwelling auteur's most commercially successful film, and may be his most aesthetically satisfying one as well.

Readers who've heard of only one psychology experiment in their lives probably know Milgram's: In 1961's "obedience study," he found that the majority of subjects would give fellow volunteers horrible electric shocks if instructed to do so by an authority figure. The shocks weren't real, but the subjects didn't know that; the increasing discomfort of his obedient participants led many to call Milgram's ethics into question, and the experiment remains a campus debate-starter today.

Almereyda opens in the Yale lab where this experiment was conducted, with Milgram behind a two-way mirror, watching participants grow distressed as things escalate. They grimace and sigh each time they're instructed to "shock" a person whose (artificial) yelps of pain they hear from another room, but the scientist is expressionless. Sarsgaard's still face is an illustration of the Kuleshov effect; One's feelings about the merits of the experiment will determine whether one sees him as sadistic, sad or detached.

As he explains while speaking directly to the camera, Milgram wants to understand how ordinary people can be coerced into unthinkable acts. He walks through a hallway addressing us, and as this Jewish man brings up his work's bearing on the Holocaust, an elephant lumbers through the office behind him. (The animal actually appears in the credits, as "Elephant in the Room.") Later, Almereyda will use intentionally fake-looking rear projection as scenery, especially in sequences involving authority figures and powerful institutions: The (conveniently budget-friendly) device uses the agreed-upon illusions of cinema to remind us of the artificiality of the powers that govern our lives.

In depicting Milgram's relationship with his wife, Sasha (Ryder), the movie comes as close as it will get to the conventions of the biopic. But Sasha also serves as a proxy for viewers not steeped in the world of social sciences. She's fascinated by the obedience experiment; she wants to feel what it's like to sit in the chair. She's soon on board with his work, an ordinary person sharing his provocative values.

Milgram did much more than this one famous experiment, and Almereyda walks us through many of his efforts. Intentionally or not, these all are made to look like also-rans, vastly less elemental than the project that, through continuing books and interviews and teaching gigs, would never disappear from his life. Milgram even had to endure a TV film inspired by the obedience experiment in which he was played by William Shatner. (Between takes, the actor makes the same sounds-smart allusion others make to show they understand Milgram's findings: Ah yes, "the Banality of Evil...")

As he ages and suffers through countless shallow readings of his work, Milgram takes to pointing out a chapter of his book few people got around to. There he defines the "agentic state," in which a person sees his role in an interaction as not human but purely functional. "That's store policy," such a person might say, or "that's out of my control." Spend a couple of hours trying to get satisfaction on a company's toll-free "customer service" line, and you might conclude that a version of Milgram's famous experiment is still being conducted on a massive scale.

Production companies: BB Film Productions, FJ Productions, Intrinsic Value Films
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Kellan Lutz, Taryn Manning, John Leguizamo
Director-screenwriter: Michael Almereyda
Producers: Uri Singer, Fabio Golombek, Aimee Schoof, Isen Robbins, Per Melita, Danny A. Abeckaser
Executive producers: 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
Casting director: Billy Hopkins
Sales: John Sloss, Cinetic

No rating, 97 minutes