Michael Almereyda’s films don’t move forward, backward, upwards, or downwards; they just move. His characters’ bearings are fairly consistent, from film to film: detached, fixated on some distant point, murmuring more than they speak; as a result, his works tend to be characterized as prototypical “art-house” films, as far removed from the blockbuster arena as they could be. And yet “Experimenter,” his marvelous, polyvalent new film about famed and infamous psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), whose most famous experiment involved making subjects believe they were giving other participants electric shocks, points up both a populist strain in his work as well as a slowly growing sense of the comic; his work is not so much mellowing, in terms of his subject matter, as expanding. He tells ever larger stories, with an ever-expanding reach.
As the film begins, we see two men led into Milgram’s lab, as Milgram observes them from behind a two-way mirror. The tone, here and elsewhere, is soft, restrained, little dialogue above normal conversational decibel levels; at first you might think the restraint is purposeful, to reflect scientific detachment—or deep-rooted repression. While either is possible, what becomes evident as the film progresses is that it is an affable work, as movies go; it doesn’t raise its voice because it wants to keep the level of dialogue comfortable and rational, so that the numerous experiments described in this quasi-biopic will sink in. The experiment at the outset is a curious one, and one for which Milgram would receive intense criticism—and yet it sets a slightly comic mood that lingers for the rest of the film. One person in the experiment is the teacher, the other the learner. The learner goes into a room and awaits questions from the teacher, based on a list of word pairs read rather rapidly by the teacher. If, upon being read a word, the learner remembers the word it was paired with originally, they proceed to the next question—if not, the teacher administers electric shocks to the learner, in increasing amounts with each new wrong answer. Or thinks he does. In reality, the “learner” is a plant, who sits with a tape recorder and plays clips such as “ouch” and “Aa–ahhh” at appropriate moments. As the various “teachers” march through–among them John Leguizamo and Tamryn Manning, both memorable in brief spots–their distress becomes palpable with each increasing application of the shock, but a monitor placed in the room forbids them from stopping, and, by and large, they don’t stop. They challenge, and they question, and they argue, but they obey orders, ultimately. The root motivation for this experiment is quite serious; Milgram, whose parents died in the Holocaust, is trying to determine what would have compelled so many humans to kill so many other humans. But here, one can’t help thinking the experiment is played for semi-laughs. The seriousness of the monitor’s delivery, the histrionics of the “teachers,” the retiring quality of the “learner,” played relaxedly by Jim Gaffigan, all combine to induce amusement rather than alarm, reflection rather than disturbance.
The film tells another story, as well, threaded through Milgram’s successive experiments—that of the love between Milgram and his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder). Although the progress of Milgram’s career wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with their relationship, work ultimately inscribes itself upon life, as it will. Sarsgaard and Ryder give remarkable performances here, both stepping out of their range significantly. Ryder has, since her first appearances in films like ‘Heathers’ or ‘Beetlejuice,’ combined animation with sultriness, poise with awkwardness. Fitting Sasha into life with Milgram requires a different energy from Ryder, and she plays it elegantly, essentially telling the story of the relationship in her face. Milgram meets her as he is in the midst of his early experiments and on the brink of notoriety. The early flirtation between them combines nuance, wit, and affection, in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s stillness. As the film progresses, we watch Ryder’s face become more severe and lined, bespeaking both Sasha’s alienation within her marriage and the toll the work she and her husband do has taken on her. Granted, the experiments Milgram does are fairly benign; one involves looking up at a skyscraper, in order to see if others will follow suit, while another involves gauging individuals’ reactions to pictures of themselves and another involves identifying strangers on might see everyday on a train platform in a photo of that platform. Nothing overtly harmful here, but in the other hand, the experiments have in common a certain built-in alienation whose cumulative effect, one imagines, is akin to the effect repeated exposure to uranium had on Pierre and Marie Curie. Milgram feels this, as well. Sarsgaard gives one of his most self-effacing and modest performances ever here; from the beginning, Milgram seems to consider and momentarily retract every word he says, not so much deliberating as interrogating himself–and in so doing, oddly enough, he seems to place a barrier between himself and others. Sasha is is the only figure here with whom we see him interacting in anything like a direct fashion; his initial romantic proposition to her is razor-efficient, surrounded by a swirl of prevarication with others. Paradoxically, Milgram speaks to the camera for much of the film–however, this breaking of the fourth wall ultimately comes to seem like yet another avoidance technique for Milgram, another way for him to put his work between himself and everyone else. Of course, this work takes its toll on Milgram, as well; we watch his body decay as his work loses its initial fire.
The key question the film seems to want to ask is this: To what extent can the actions we perform tell us something about ourselves? In one segment set in the seventies, Milgram has sprouted an aggressive and somewhat awkward beard. Watching Sarsgaard declaim to the camera, I scolded myself inwardly for chuckling at him until (it was a street scene) a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln passed by. Milgram notices the Lincoln-esque man, and even engages with him–as if to point up, albeit humorously, his awareness of his own odd appearance, and his astonishment that there might be a corollary for it outside himself. The chief irony here is that the obedience which Milgram examines, which would have caused the Nazi officials to execute millions of people, plays itself out within his own life, seemingly without his knowledge. His duties to his job damage his relationship–how stable could a couple be if a husband has his wife as a secretary, as Milgram did, and as one of his students notices, with a sneer. There’s not a story arc here, to speak of. If there is is one, it most resembles the path the earth traces around the sun, as night turns into day, and with each sunrise, we are brought into increased awareness of who we are, and what it is we are doing, exactly, on this planet.