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Review: ‘Experimenter’ biopic pushes levers with audacity

A scene from "Experimenter."

A scene from “Experimenter.”

(Jason Robinette)

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?

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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.


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