In some respects, a movie about a famous psychological study writes itself. Experiments like the Stanford Prison Experiment (the basis of a film that was released earlier this year) are inherently cinematic, with thrilling sequences of tension and violence rooted in real human psychology. In dramatizing these studies, filmmakers can do a better job of explaining their implications, beyond just reading their Wikipedia summaries. With deeper research, the films can create a more visceral reaction in the viewer. A movie based on true events needs to do more than just recount what happened. That’s where “Experimenter” falls apart.
Directed and written by Michael Almereyda (“Hamlet”), “Experimenter” is the latest film to attempt the dramatization of a psychological study. Stanley Milgram, played here by Peter Sarsgaard (“Shattered Glass”), conducts an experiment in which the participants believe they’re delivering increasingly painful electric shocks to other participants. The study intended to examine the effects of punishment on learning. In reality, the designated “learner” (Jim Gaffigan, “The Jim Gaffigan Show”) is an actor in on the experiment, not actually being shocked; the study is meant to observe how far the subjects are willing to comply to continue delivering shocks.
Viewers who know anything about the study won’t be surprised to learn that the subjects are disturbingly willing to shock the learner. The actors playing the subjects, like John Leguizamo (“Chef”), Taryn Manning (“Orange is the New Black”) and Anton Yelchin (“Star Trek”), portray their characters in a way that presents the full spectrum of human reactions to Milgram’s seemingly sadistic commands. Most subjects begin to wince or clench their fists as the shocks become more and more painful, but they continue to obey the experimenter even when the learner begs them to stop.
The first half of the film plays out like a History Channel special, with Sarsgaard often breaking the fourth wall to explain the psychological concepts at play. “Experimenter” would be a decent movie if it was willing to stay focused on the study and keep the scenes at Yale. But to reach greatness, an experiment-based film needs to have a purpose beyond reenactment. There needs to be an emotional core — something that justifies the film’s existence. Unfortunately, after a kinetic first half exploring the shock experiment’s significance, the second half of “Experimenter” devolves into disconnected scenes devoid of narrative drive.
“Experimenter” makes the mistake of attempting to portray new dimensions by slowly transforming into a biopic of Stanley Milgram. Sarsgaard, as always, is great in the role, and Winona Ryder (“Beetlejuice”) lends a warm, curious presence as his wife. Still, the film struggles to justify Sasha Milgram’s necessity as a character in the film. After they get married, she mostly sits back and watches Stanley work, at most helping him sort papers or cheering him on.
Ultimately, this story doesn’t belong to Sasha Milgram, or sociologist Paul Hollander (Edoardo Ballerini, “The Sopranos”), or the numerous other minor characters who either challenge or support Stanley Milgram along the way. “Experimenter” passes these supporting characters off as important in Stanley Milgram’s life, but the first act of the film presents the study as the protagonist, not Milgram himself.
As a result, once the experiment is over, the film feels inconsequential. There’s no particular grounded story left to tell besides a slightly comic, meta subplot in which Milgram’s study is made into a television film starring William Shatner (Kellan Lutz, “Twilight”). The last two acts do explore the controversy around the study and Milgram’s subsequent rise to infamy, but these stories proceed exactly how you’d imagine: with detractors criticizing Milgram’s ethics and Milgram defiantly dismissing them.
The most compelling scenes in the second half are simple episodes explaining related psychological studies, like the small-world experiment that spawned “six degrees of separation.” Even these brief interludes though are barely connected to any overarching plot or purpose. The film is worth watching for its profound depictions of Milgram’s experiments, but as a biopic about Milgram himself, it barely leaves an impression.