The Stanford Prison Experiment won big prizes at Sundance for its dramatization of the famously doomed psychological experiment. It’s good, but Experimenter is even better, depicting even more complex psychology and using cinematic technique to twist the psychology on the subject of this biopic. Score one for Yale.
Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) set up an experiment where one volunteer asks questions and shocks the other for any wrong answers given. However, the experiment is actually on the questioner, to see how far they will go and obey orders. Milgram came up with other fascinating social experiments too, and some are depicted in the film, but since this is a movie about Milgram, the film concedes that cinema is also an experiment of sorts, and presents Milgram’s story as an experiment on us.
Milgram breaks the fourth wall a lot, addressing the camera directly. While he does so, some pretty random images pass by in the background. Many scenes are filmed with artificial Hollywood techniques like rear projection. This makes sense too. Milgram constructed scenarios for his obedience experiment, so the film constructs noticeably artificial techniques to depict his story.
I guess Milgram’s experiments were controversial because people felt he was lying to the subjects. I don’t get the issue. Isn’t that what an experiment is? You have to give some people the placebo to see if the medicine really works or it’s just the placebo effect. Perhaps it’s that Milgram was interested in figuring out what made Nazi guards obey their leaders during the Holocaust. It gets understandably controversial when you bring Nazis into it, but it is a worthwhile study to understand what makes people follow orders they may know are morally wrong.
We still follow authority. The banks pressured us to take mortgages we couldn’t afford and people, myself included, went along with it against our better judgment. Stock traders, ponzi schemers and more proved that Milgram was right. 35% of his subjects did stop the experiment and walk out on moral grounds. That’s good, but I still wish it was higher.
People hear that electric shocks were involved in Milgram’s experiments and they judge immediately. I guess they didn’t hear the part where the shocks were fake and it was an actor pretending to scream.
Eventually, Milgram witnesses the reconstruction of his own life, which is a fascinating case of the experiment folding back on the experimenter. That is the nature of biopics anyway, so Experimenter works as an experimental biopic. Later in life, Sarsgaard wears a fake beard, pointing out the absurdity of biopics where the actors age.
I would love Experimenter simply as a meta film experiment. I’m so tired of linear storytelling that anything abstract intrigues me, especially when it’s done well. But the subject of Stanley Milgram makes a fascinating story anyway so Experimenter is a success on many levels.