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Experimenter – Review


Release Date: 16 October 2015 [USA]
Director: Michael Almereyda
Writer: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Winona Ryder - Taryn Manning - Peter Sarsgaard - Anton Yelchin - Kellan Lutz



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Posted October 29, 2015 by

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Experimenter Review:

Imagine for a moment that you are a screenwriter. The story you are telling centers on a maverick. A man who was willing to bend some rules to get at what he considered to be important. In so doing, he pissed off a lot of people. One of those people went so far as to spit on him.

Here’s your screenwriting question? Would you include the spitting scene in your screenplay?

I can safely answer that almost any screenwriter would answer with a loud “yes.” The noble hero getting spit on by an angry … well, angry anything, actually. That has Oscar nom written all over it.

The fact that Michael Almereyda – in his role as both screenwriter and director of Experimenter – chose to leave such a moment off screen and only refer to it in dialogue says a lot about his new movie.

Experimenter tells the story of Stanley Milgram, controversial social psychologist who performed one of the most famous experiments in the history of American psychology in the early 1960s. You have almost certainly heard of it. Under the guise of testing how negative stimulus affects our ability to learn, Milgram had test subjects give increasingly severe electric shocks to “learners” when they answered memory questions incorrectly. By the end of the test, the “learner” was in clear distress. As you probably know, the “learner” was not the subject of the experiment – he was a plant who was acting. The subject was the person administering the shock, the “teacher.” The experiment tested how far the “teacher” would go in torturing another human being when given instruction to do so by someone in a position of authority. Less than twenty years removed from Nazi Germany, these experiments raised a lot of uncomfortable questions about human behavior.

It appears that Almereyda set out to correct certain misperceptions about Milgram and his work. A fictionalized version of the experiments – the making of which plays an important role in Experimenter – was produced for CBS television in 1975 with William Shatner as the Milgram-like psychologist. Milgram, and I suspect Almereyda, apparently felt that this film treatment sensationalized the work. Perhaps that is why we don’t see anyone spit at Stanley Milgram in Experimenter.

What we do see is far more bizarre and in the end, unintelligible. Almereyda seems to go out of his way to introduce Brechtian elements of alienation into source material that wouldn’t appear on the surface to need any embellishments. Among the seemingly incongruous visual elements we get is the occasional elephant strolling in the hallway behind Milgram. We also get a long sequence that would appear to be stylistically lifted out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie, with obviously fake rear projection and color foreground subjects staged against black & white backdrops. And we get one of the most laughably bad beards you are likely to see in any movie this year as Milgram ages and grows facial hair.

These elements are Brechtian because they seem entirely designed to pull you out of any emotional involvement in the narrative – indeed, to remind you that you are in fact watching a stylized film. I just can’t for the life of me figure out why Almereyda made these decisions or what they contribute to our understanding of the man or the story. In the end, they seem more pretentious than revelatory.

And I haven’t mentioned the most overwhelming Brechtian device on display. Actor Peter Sarsgaard, who plays Milgram, narrates. He breaks out of scenes to directly address the audience about various issues in Milgram’s life. At times, these are useful interruptions. Milgram was involved in a lot of interesting experiments beyond that obedience test, and as narrator, he describes many of them to us. But – how to put this? – he NEVER shuts up. He just keeps talking and talking and explaining and filling us in on back story. It moves from enlightening to annoying rather quickly. There is one brief traditional scene during which Milgram, while teaching a college Psych class, tells his students to pair up and go for a ride on a local bus. One student will begin singing his or her favorite song, loudly, so everyone on the bus can hear. The other student will observe the reactions of the other riders. This is great. I would have loved to have seen that scene on screen. But we never do. It is never mentioned again. Instead, we just get more of Stanley Milgram talking to us about what it all means.

If I sound frustrated by Almereyda’s approach, it’s probably because this is a very interesting story and I don’t like most of the decisions he makes in telling it. For instance, we see a sampling of the obedience studies early on and hear a great deal about them from both Milgram and his subjects. We are led to believe that it was extremely rare for any test subject to refuse to give the maximum shock to the “learner.” Then, about 2/3 into the movie, we finally hear some hard figures. 65% of the subjects gave the maximum shock, which means that 35% stopped at some point. That is quite a bit different from the “almost all” designation that we had been told about up to that point.

At times like that, it felt like Almereyda didn’t trust that his story was compelling enough to tell it straight. Which is a real shame, because this story had a lot going for it. It even had a scene in which the hero gets spit on. I wonder what Freud would have made of that.



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Jonathan Eig
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