Review: ‘Experimenter’ biopic pushes levers with audacity


World War II and the Nazis’ well-oiled killing machine were recent history, the stuff of living memory, when social psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on a landmark experiment in “blind obedience to malevolent authority.” The subject was disturbing, the results more so, and a half-century later they continue to fascinate and spark debate, inspiring seemingly endless replication.

Milgram’s story arrives on the big screen as no conventional biopic but a work of subdued audacity. Writer-director Michael Almereyda, whose “Hamlet” and “Cymbeline” boldly reimagined Shakespeare, takes a stylized visual approach in “Experimenter,” with bracing results.

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With his playfully overt use of rear-screen projections, Almereyda creates a heightened sense of artificiality that’s both distancing and involving, a darkly comic corollary to Milgram’s scientific inquiry. Illusion is central to the Milgram experiment, whose subjects believed they were administering painful electric shocks as part of a memorization exercise. The levers they pushed were phony, the resulting screams faked; in truth they were being observed for their compliance to orders. How far would they go?

As the mastermind of this scientific ruse, Peter Sarsgaard has an offbeat intensity that’s variously inscrutable and touching, well matched by Winona Ryder’s compelling turn as Milgram’s wife. Milgram’s findings made a splash. Then they were condemned, his ethics questioned. Sarsgaard breaks the fourth wall to vent his frustration, and sometimes a literal elephant in the room lumbers behind him — the controversy that would follow him for the rest of his life.

But something far larger than that pachyderm courses through “Experimenter,” which is also the story of Jewish first-generation Americans. It’s in the faces of Sarsgaard and Ryder’s characters as they watch Adolf Eichmann’s televised war-crimes trial, and when they watch Milgram’s experiment participants push the levers.

“Experimenter.” MPAA rating: PG-13 for thematic material, brief strong language. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes. Playing: Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles. Also on VOD.