Completing a trifecta of recent cinema (after Masters of Sex and The Stanford Prison Experiment) suddenly fascinated with the social-science lab experiments of the Eisenhower-Nixon era, Experimenter is as cool as a grad student clamping electrodes onto a test monkey. One of our lowest-profile indie-film treasures, director Michael Almereyda never makes the same movie twice, toggling from Pixelvision experiment (1992's Another Girl, Another Planet) to downtown-hipster horror (1994's Nadja) to modern-day Shakespeare, art documentaries,
The history here is the work of Dr. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), a Yale psychologist who in 1961 decided to lab-test his ideas about "role-playing, authority, conformity" in what became an infamous masterpiece of clinical sleight of hand. Milgram would set up a pair of test subjects in separate rooms, one answering memory-test questions — and, when missing an answer, receiving electrical shocks from the other. Immediately we see that the
Why did they go all the way? Would we? Yes, we would, it seems, just as the Germans followed orders under the Nazis. The world around Milgram was freshly wading through the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem at the time, and the doctor's express intent was to plumb the essential moral conundrum of the Holocaust: We all know why the Nazis did what they did, but why did the Germans do what they did, or not do what they didn't do? Scientifically, Milgram saw only "obedience to authority" (the title of his book about the experiments), but under Almereyda's eye, the paradigm leaks creepy entwined intimations of sadism, guilt, secrecy, abasement, and soullessness.
Almereyda jacks up the meta as Experimenter rolls: It's like a cellar-lab version of Rear Window, with the characters entranced by the framed-up movie views of human life in extremis. (Milgram's fiancée and then wife, played by a wide-eyed Winona Ryder, is at first appalled as she observes but evolves into an ardent fan.)
There are even splats of obvious back-projection, theatrically two-dimensional green-screen backgrounds, bursts of song, hilarious product-placement parodies, reenactments of TV shows, stock footage, and even a literal elephant in the room, walking surreally behind Sarsgaard as he chats directly at the camera.
Is watching complicity? Experimenter exudes an increasing sense of stylized unreality as it follows Milgram's life after the initial experiments, suggesting that the hyperawareness of human conformity began to fracture the doctor's syllogistic perspective. In reality, Milgram's work reached no conclusion more useful than acknowledging our amorality.
Sarsgaard's saturnine suaveness lends Milgram's role as puppetmaster a menacing air,
Almereyda seems fascinated by how the warning of the Milgram experiments went unheeded in America, even as we laid waste to Southeast Asia, tolerated the Nixon administration, and followed Ronald Reagan into a socioeconomic abyss. Almereyda's larger point may be, we think for ourselves even less ever since.
Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, Edoardo Ballerini, Kellan Lutz, Dennis Haysbert, Danny Abeckaser, Taryn Manning, and Anton Yelchin. Written and directed by Michael Almereyda. 98 minutes. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday, November 13, at Lake Worth Playhouse (713 Lake Ave., Lake Worth; 561-586-6169; lakeworthplayhouse.org).