The history here is the work of Dr. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), the 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 shock-receiver in this scenario (Jim Gaffigan) is part of the doctor’s team, in actuality receiving no jolts and instead playing painful pre-recorded vocalizations. Told to continue no matter what, the true test subjects (of whom we see scores, including subjects played by, among others, Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo and Taryn Manning) press on, with varying degrees of distress. Most follow instructions, reaching the last dial on their shock machine, purportedly the highest setting, despite being traumatized by the experience.
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 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. The movie is itself a rat maze of one-sided mirrors, windows upon windows, anonymous hallways, compartmentalized instances of watching, being watched, seeing and not seeing.
Just like movies, right? 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 hyper-awareness of human conformity began to fracture the doctor’s syllogistic perspective. In reality and in the film, Milgram’s most famous work reached no conclusion more useful than a chilling acknowledgment of our ovine amorality. Truth is, Milgram was not a fascinating figure by himself; his marriage and family never faltered, and his career wandered to CUNY after Yale refused him tenure thanks to controversy about his research. The experiments were accused of being cruel and dishonest (insofar as the subjects were lied to), and Milgram had to defend them for years.
Sarsgaard’s saturnine suaveness lends Milgram’s role as puppet master a menacing air, however unconvincing the actor might be as an egghead. Ryder still has two of the most watchful eyes in American cinema, but the human meat of the movie is in the one-offs, the parade of faces about whom we know nothing but the immediacy of their inner crisis as they face the knobs in that tiny room and hear the barks of pain next door.
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 as though he were blowing a pipe. His larger point may be that we think for ourselves even less ever since.