Michael Almereyda’s ‘Experimenter’ Is a Multi-Dimensional Look at Our Desire to Obey

Michael Almereyda’s ‘Experimenter’ Is a Multi-Dimensional Look at Our Desire to Obey

nullMichael Almereyda’s films don’t move forward, backward, upwards, or downwards; they just move. His characters’ bearings are fairly consistent, from film to film: detached, fixated on some distant point, murmuring more than they speak; as a result, his works tend to be characterized as prototypical “art-house” films, as far removed from the blockbuster arena as they could be. And yet “Experimenter,” his marvelous, polyvalent new film about famed and infamous psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), whose most famous experiment involved making subjects believe they were giving other participants electric shocks, points up both a populist strain in his work as well as a slowly growing sense of the comic; his work is not so much mellowing, in terms of his subject matter, as expanding. He tells ever larger stories, with an ever-expanding reach.

As the film begins, we see two men led into Milgram’s lab, as Milgram observes them from behind a two-way mirror. The tone, here and elsewhere, is soft, restrained, little dialogue above normal conversational decibel levels; at first you might think the restraint is purposeful, to reflect scientific detachment—or deep-rooted repression. While either is possible, what becomes evident as the film progresses is that it is an affable work, as movies go; it doesn’t raise its voice because it wants to keep the level of dialogue comfortable and rational, so that the numerous experiments described in this quasi-biopic will sink in. The experiment at the outset is a curious one, and one for which Milgram would receive intense criticism—and yet it sets a slightly comic mood that lingers for the rest of the film. One person in the experiment is the teacher, the other the learner. The learner goes into a room and awaits questions from the teacher, based on a list of word pairs read rather rapidly by the teacher. If, upon being read a word, the learner remembers the word it was paired with originally, they proceed to the next question—if not, the teacher administers electric shocks to the learner, in increasing amounts with each new wrong answer. Or thinks he does. In reality, the “learner” is a plant, who sits with a tape recorder and plays clips such as "ouch" and "Aa–ahhh" at appropriate moments. As the various "teachers" march through–among them John Leguizamo and Tamryn Manning, both memorable in brief spots–their distress becomes palpable with each increasing application of the shock, but a monitor placed in the room forbids them from stopping, and, by and large, they don’t stop. They challenge, and they question, and they argue, but they obey orders, ultimately. The root motivation for this experiment is quite serious; Milgram, whose parents died in the Holocaust, is trying to determine what would have compelled so many humans to kill so many other humans. But here, one can’t help thinking the experiment is played for semi-laughs. The seriousness of the monitor’s delivery, the histrionics of the "teachers," the retiring quality of the "learner," played relaxedly by Jim Gaffigan, all combine to induce amusement rather than alarm, reflection rather than disturbance.

The film tells another story, as well, threaded through Milgram’s successive experiments—that of the love between Milgram and  his wife Sasha (Winona Ryder). Although the progress of Milgram’s career wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with their relationship, work ultimately inscribes itself upon life, as it will. Sarsgaard and Ryder give remarkable performances here, both stepping out of their range significantly. Ryder has, since her first appearances in films like ‘Heathers’ or ‘Beetlejuice,’ combined animation with sultriness, poise with awkwardness. Fitting Sasha into life with Milgram requires a different energy from Ryder, and she plays it elegantly, essentially telling the story of the relationship in her face. Milgram meets her as he is in the midst of his early experiments and on the brink of notoriety. The early flirtation between them combines nuance, wit, and affection, in stark contrast to the rest of the film’s stillness. As the film progresses, we watch Ryder’s face become more severe and lined, bespeaking both Sasha’s alienation within her marriage and the toll the work she and her husband do has taken on her. Granted, the experiments Milgram does are fairly benign; one involves looking up at a skyscraper, in order to see if others will follow suit, while another involves gauging individuals’ reactions to pictures of themselves and another involves identifying strangers on might see everyday on a train platform in a photo of that platform. Nothing overtly harmful here, but in the other hand, the experiments have in common a certain built-in alienation whose cumulative effect, one imagines, is akin to the effect repeated exposure to uranium had on Pierre and Marie Curie. Milgram feels this, as well. Sarsgaard gives one of his most self-effacing and modest performances ever here; from the beginning, Milgram seems to consider and momentarily retract every word he says, not so much deliberating as interrogating himself–and in so doing, oddly enough, he seems to place a barrier between himself and others. Sasha is is the only figure here with whom we see him interacting in anything like a direct fashion; his initial romantic proposition to her is razor-efficient, surrounded by a swirl of prevarication with others. Paradoxically, Milgram speaks to the camera for much of the film–however, this breaking of the fourth wall ultimately comes to seem like yet another avoidance technique for Milgram, another way for him to put his work between himself and everyone else. Of course, this work takes its toll on Milgram, as well; we watch his body decay as his work loses its initial fire.

The key question the film seems to want to ask is this: To what extent can the actions we perform tell us something about ourselves? In one segment set in the seventies, Milgram has sprouted an aggressive and somewhat awkward beard. Watching Sarsgaard declaim to the camera, I scolded myself inwardly for chuckling at him until (it was a street scene) a man dressed as Abraham Lincoln passed by. Milgram notices the Lincoln-esque man, and even engages with him–as if to point up, albeit humorously, his awareness of his own odd appearance, and his astonishment that there might be a corollary for it outside himself. The chief irony here is that the obedience which Milgram examines, which would have caused the Nazi officials to execute millions of people, plays itself out within his own life, seemingly without his knowledge. His duties to his job damage his relationship–how stable could a couple be if a husband has his wife as a secretary, as Milgram did, and as one of his students notices, with a sneer. There’s not a story arc here, to speak of. If there is is one, it most resembles the path the earth traces around the sun, as night turns into day, and with each sunrise, we are brought into increased awareness of who we are, and what it is we are doing, exactly, on this planet.  


Peter Sarsgaard: On NIGHT MOVES, Marine Biology, and Blowing Up Dams

Peter Sarsgaard: On NIGHT MOVES, Marine Biology, and Blowing Up Dams


When I think of Peter Sarsgaard, I think of An Education. I think of him breaking Carey Mulligan’s
heart, and then devastating others in Boys
Don’t Cry.
I think of him as the creepy villain in Green Lantern, the slippery student in Kinsey, and Linda’s awful boyfriend in Lovelace. Common denominator: bad guys.

In Night Moves, directed
by Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, Old
Sarsgaard stars opposite Dakota Fanning and Jesse Eisenberg as
environmentalists who plan to blow up a hydroelectric dam. Recently we discussed his own
personal activism, passions, past, and perhaps why he’s so drawn to play those
“evil” characters.

MA: Your father was
in the air force and your family traveled a lot when you were a child. Did this
ignite your inclination towards acting, to play different characters in
different environments?

PS: I mean I don’t think it got me interested in acting. I
think it might be what makes it so that I can have the idea of the variety of
people in the world, different incomes. That helps. When you’re going to play
someone it’s interesting and nice to see experiences that aren’t like yours.
But there’s always the remarkable similarity of all people.

MA: What made you decide to become an actor? 

PS: I was at Washington University in St. Louis. I thought
of myself as an athlete and a writer.  I’d gotten concussions and injuries playing
soccer so I quit and I needed something to fill my time. I never daydreamed
about being an actor, although my interest in literature was in Shakespeare.  

MA: Was there ever a
different path you considered choosing, or still consider today?

PS: Marine Biologist.

MA: Why Marine

PS: Because the oceans are pretty unexplored places and the
final frontier on our planet; also because they’re the source of life. There
are dramatic things happening to them at the moment, and they’re worth exploring.  

MA: You were raised
Roman Catholic. You’ve said that something that always fascinated you was the
concept that you’re supposed to love your enemy. Did this influence your work
with evil characters, John Lotter in Boys
Don’t Cry
being one of them? How do you access that?

PS: “Evil characters” is not something I would ever have
thought of them as. It may have been my upbringing in Catholicism, may have
been me. It’s not helpful to think of anyone as evil. I’ve always looked at the
world as a place where people have done evil things. There are people in the world, for instance, that would describe Americans
as evil.

MA: Who’s the most
frightening person you’ve ever played?

PS: Who would I least want to hang out with? Probably John
Lotter. I guess I have a place of understanding for everyone I’ve

MA: Who was the most

PS: I always had a very hard time connecting to Chuck in
Lovelace. With John Lotter, it was understood thoroughly why he was doing what he’s
doing. Chuck was like a big baby, super destructive
and self-serving. 

MA: How did becoming a husband and then a father change your work as an actor?

PS: I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, my daughter is
desperate for me to do something she can watch. That’s not really up to me!

MA: You need to play
a Disney villain.

PS: I could segue into it by playing the voice of a bad guy,
maybe, and go from there! 

MA: Do you use your
family as emotional triggers in your work or try to steer clear of that type of
personalization in your method?

PS: It’s all personalization. There’s nothing else. It has
nothing to do with the people immediately around me. It’s more self-oriented
than that. I’ve done my best work when I’m away from my family. 

MA: What are your
methods, or does it depend on the film?

PS: It depends. If no one on the movie has met me before or knows
me, that’s the easiest. I don’t do a lot of things that don’t relate
to being the person. I will try to keep it going for my other actors. I want
them to do the least amount of pretending as possible.

MA: In Night Moves, the characters take an
environmental issue into their own hands, blowing up a hydroelectric dam. Is
there any issue you are this passionate about?

PS: The death penalty. My first movie was Dead Man Walking. I was around people
that really felt strongly about it, and they made me think about it. Usually the
way I think someone is radicalized is through a personal experience. The thing about environmental activism is that we are all having a personal experience
with our environment, whether we open our eyes or not. I think these people [in Night Moves] are not able to disassociate
as well as some people. A lot of us don’t hear the DefCon 5 alarm bell ringing
as loud as these people do.

MA: How has being a
working actor given you a platform for your political, environmental or social

PS: When I did The
, I did that part because I felt it explored the issue
in a way that was challenging. A lot of people, practically all the way through,
thought this person was supposed to die. I believe even the guilty should
not be killed. We can all agree that the 4% of people on death row that are innocent
is a big problem. That’s how I’ve used it.

MA: What was the most
interesting thing you learned working with Kelly Reichardt? What was it like on

PA: It doesn’t feel like anything to be in Kelly’s movies.
There’s not that performance feeling, ever. You’re not opening on Broadway. Kelly
wants it to be easy, without a lot of fretting.
She values the way in which people don’t think about what they’re doing. In
life, people turn on the radio and end up singing to James Taylor on the way to
blow up a dam. It’s difficult to keep a thought like that in your mind.

MA: What’s an
aspiration you have in life apart from something in the arts?

PS: I would like to sail across the Atlantic. I would like
the experience of being that far away from land.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior
Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education
and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show,
“All the Way with Alloway,” where she scoops the latest up and coming
industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from
Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing
for film and stage.