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Film Review: 'Experimenter' - The Inescapable Experiment

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Peter Sarsgaard in 'Experimenter,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Human psychology has been the subject of many an interesting story over the years and now, with Experimenter, Michael Almereyda brings us a look behind the scenes at social psychologist Stanley Milgram’s 1961 experiments that explored the human dispensation to obedience.

Peter Sarsgaard stars as Milgram, whose infamous studies on human free will prompted a backlash from his contemporaries. The experiment featured two human test subjects, one who was actually part of Milgram’s own team and an outsider who is oblivious to this fact. The outsider is given the title of “teacher” and the other person, “student.” In a different room where he cannot see what’s happening, the teacher asks a series of questions of the student and upon each wrong answer, administers an electric shock to the student.

The student is not actually being shocked, but as the teacher can hear shouts of pain through the wall, he assumes the worst. Another element comes in when the student expresses that he would like to stop the experiment. The teacher is told to continue by an authoritative figure in a white lab coat and the crux of the experiment hangs on whether or not the teacher will listen and continue the experiment, or whether he will outright refuse.

What shocked the world at the time of the real experiments, and what prompted Milgram’s contemporaries to challenge him, was the discomfort that the results of the experiment instill in the human psyche. The authoritative figure in the white lab coat can often trump someone’s own moral compass.

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Winona Ryder in 'Experimenter,' a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In a move that adds interest to this flick, Milgram breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience. Some scenes are filmed on a backdrop of moving set scenery and at one point a giant elephant follows Milgram down a corridor. Including the obvious reference to the “elephant in the room,” Experimenter is a psychologically fascinating film. By documenting a true story, it provokes debate amongst its audience and even now, its findings make for uncomfortable viewing.

Working after the country was at war, Milgram became preoccupied with the idea of mass genocides and obedience, as the question of why someone committed such atrocities reared its ugly head. The findings of this experiment suggested that it was simply because someone was told to and with the resulting social pressure, they ordered millions of deaths because they were following orders.

Winona Ryder stars as Sasha, Milgram’s wife and thus the film documents many aspects of the psychologist’s life. We watch his famous psychological study, but also get a glimpse into his own psyche, thought processes and ultimately gain a better idea of who this man was.

The real substance of this film is to be found in Milgram’s speeches to the camera, where he asks pertinent questions of the audience and makes us think about our own psychology, a favourite being: “Life can only be understood backwards, but has to be lived forwards.”    

Experimenter opens in San Francisco on October 23.