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Movie Review

‘Experimenter’ investigates shock value

Peter Sarsgaard plays psychological researcher Stanley Milgram.
Peter Sarsgaard plays psychological researcher Stanley Milgram.Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

There is an elephant in the room — a hallway actually — in Michael Almereyda’s mostly playful if occasionally pretentious “Experimenter,” a post-modernist biopic about the controversial psychological researcher Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard, with a horrible, perhaps intentionally so, Bronx accent). A pachyderm follows Milgram as he walks toward the camera, directly addressing the viewer, relating his ideas, sharing anecdotes from his past, and uttering assorted gnomic observations.

What better way to represent this clichéd metaphor for the ignored and the obvious — in this case the artifice and deceptiveness of a movie about the artifice and deceptiveness of its subject? Almereyda also employs such devices as rear projection and a claustrophobic staginess to emphasize the fact that, yes, this is all fakery meant to deceive — but also to elicit truth.

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Encased in such reflexivity, “Experimenter” sometimes seems like it has wandered into the hall of mirrors in “Lady From Shanghai” without the recourse of a handgun or a mystery to solve. Despite this labyrinthine self-consciousness, the film, like its subject, keeps careful note of dates and places.

It begins, as a subtitle tells us, in August 1961 at Yale, where Milgram performs the experiments he became famous for: the obedience studies in which two volunteers, a “Teacher” and a “Learner,” would engage in a quiz game. The Teacher would punish the Learner with an electric shock of increasing intensity for every mistake. Milgram discovered that 65 percent of the Teachers would continue the experiment to the end even though the Learner (a member of the research team, who was unharmed) yelped in pain and begged to be let go.

It was Milgram’s triumph and downfall, as many felt the tests demonstrated the experimenter’s sadism more than it proved the subjects’ conformity. The son of Jewish immigrants, Milgram was obsessed with the Holocaust (Eichmann had been tried and executed around the same time) and wanted to show that just following orders was not exclusively a German trait. He felt he had to use deception to make his point, but does Almereyda need to do the same? Maybe playing games and creating illusions — making movies, in essence — is the only way the truth can be taught.

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Movie Review

★ ★ ★

EXPERIMENTER

Written and directed by Michael Almereyda. Starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder. At Kendall Square.

98 minutes. PG-13 (thematic material and brief strong language).


Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.