It’s been my experience, that Michael Almereyda is a pretty interesting filmmaker, so I’m going to give the wayward passages of his new “Experimenter” the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately for him, whenever I’ve seen a film of his, I can always cite someone that did things a little bit better. Just bad timing, I guess. Not bad stuff, just poor timing. His vampire film from 1994 (“Nadja”) was arty, creepy and David Lynch-produced. And part of it was shot with a toy camera! But Abel Ferrara’s bloodsucker entry, “The Addiction” from 1995, was so much better. Ditto his solid revisionist “Hamlet”, released just a few years after Branagh’s masterpiece version. Even “Experimenter”, with its unconventional biographical take on scientist Stanley Milgram, pales in comparison to 2012’s “Compliance”, with its implementations of Dr. Milgram’s actual experimental procedures used for ill-gotten gain. I still appreciate his trio of films, however.
In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram (a very good, Peter Sarsgaard) begins conducting experiments focusing on human behavior. The nature of these trials is to test how people exhibit obedience when in the presence of an authority figure–no matter what the request. The results almost always ended with Subject #1 giving increasingly uncomfortable electric shocks to Subject #2–because it was suggested they should. At least, they believed they were jolting the other person…Milgram always had a “set-up” 2nd participant, that wasn’t actually hooked up to anything at all in the adjacent room. It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s during his infamous 1960’s work that he meets his future wife Alexandra, known as “Sasha” (a solid, and always welcome, Winona Ryder). The controversial doctor receives quite a bit of attention over the years, and moves onto studies of other types of social interactions. There is also some public outcry over the ethics of his work, as he raises two children with Sasha, and becomes a professor in New York City.
Almereyda’s domestic biographical touches on the life of Stanley Milgram are less successful than the scenes that celebrate his experiments. But his often nimble screenplay drives us through the rough patches. Peter Sarsgaard is an exceptional film actor, and he anchors this thing beautifully. And I’m greatly enjoying the steady filmic comeback, of the once-prolific Winona Ryder. There’s also a terrific supporting cast here, that includes Edoardo Ballerini, Jim Gaffigan, Anthony Edwards, Lori Singer, Anton Yelchin, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Haysbert. Plus, there are takes involving intentional artificiality that homages Alfred Hitchcock. Representations of William Shatner and Ossie Davis are a delight, as well. Overall, I hope “Experimenter” causes you to seek out the intense and riveting “Compliance”, a review of which you can find right here on the blog.