Complex Humanity: A Review of ‘Experimenter’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - October 16, 2015
Complex Humanity: A Review of ‘Experimenter’

When you realize the kinds of things that we as a species will do without all that much prodding, I’ll be honest, it is a little unsettling.  Experimenter dives into the life of noted social psychologist Stanley Milgram and his infamous obedience experiments.  While the science makes for some interesting stuff it never balances with the intricacies of the man’s life.

It’s 1961 at Yale University as social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) is deep into his “obedience experiments”.   The experiments observed the responses of ordinary people asked to send harmful electrical shocks to a stranger. Despite pleadings from the person they were shocking, 65 percent of subjects obeyed commands from a lab-coated authority figure to deliver potentially fatal currents.   With the trial of Adolf Eichmann airing on TV’s all across the land, he hits a nerve as people depict and assume him to be a monster as he plays out his Kafkaesque scenarios.  This film takes us into his obsessive mind and his fascination with human interaction from his front row seat point of view.

While the act of looking at Milgram’s work from a unique POV makes for some very interesting cinema and opportunity for social commentary it gets dragged down just a bit by the personal life of the man that just isn’t all that interesting.

Writer/Director Michael Almereyda avoids any standard story telling techniques and actually crafts a pricklish tale as he has Milgram break the fourth wall and interject into his own story.  It actually works and it makes the root of the obedience experiments feel all the more salient and real for the present day.  He moves it all at a reasonable pace but the film never feels like it is rushing and while it can get a little dry, if you are of a certain intellectual bent, this examination of his work can be pretty interesting.  Although Almereyda gets a little sidetracked with some overt stunt casting on some of the cameo roles it all makes for a slice of science that will get you talking long after the film is over.  The relationship aspects of the story are a little underdeveloped and never genuinely click while we find ourselves wishing that we could just get back these experiments and what made the man behind them tick.  It sadly never comes to a genuine answer, but I almost think that it isn’t suppose to as it does reflect a time period where people and even society as a whole were really only just beginning to get comfortable of asking questions of any kind.  Milgram showed his value on the zeitgeist of humanity by particularly making them feel uncomfortable as possible and this comes through in an incredibly strong leading performance.


Peter Sarsgaard is one of those uber talented actors who never quite seems to get the credit that he is ever due.  Here he brings us a masterful performance of a man who we are fascinated by and admire but don’t necessarily like at the exact same time.  He commands the screen with a cold and methodical charm and makes us want to follow him down whatever rabbit hole he is going down, either via an experiment or just by a random conversation, Sarsgaard sells the words with a rarely scene precision.  Winona Ryder is certainly strong enough here in support as his love but never quite his intellectual equal and their relationship just highlights the pain that genius in science often has to bear.  There are a number of other subtle and often interesting cameos as we relive unique and interesting moments in his life and his work but they all orbit around Sarsgaard as his brings the unique character to life.

Ultimately, this isn’t going to be a film for everyone but Experimenter strikes just enough of the right cord to get us thinking a little harder and looking a little deeper into some of the smallest yet incredibly significant moments and actions that happen in our day to day lives.

Experimenter is screening at the Carlton Cinemas here in downtown Toronto.

This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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