Harold Bloom once judged John Updike as being a minor talent with a major style and I think that applies to Michael Almereyda, the director of the cerebral new biopic/character study Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story. His work is unassuming, modest in ambition and tightly edited. His fiction features include the strange vampire noir Nadja and the sleek modern day Hamlet, and he’s also produced documentaries, including 2009’s affecting mosaic Paradise, a travelogue that encompassed everything from the set of Malick’s The New World to late portraiture of Manny Farber. Paradise was my favorite Almereyda until Experimenter, a movie that goes by so quickly (a svelte 90 minutes) you may not notice just how thorny and strange it is.
This resembles Mark Rappaport’s essay films more than medical movie treatises like, say, the heinous Awakenings. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) narrates directly to the screen while standing in front of rear-projection backgrounds and still photographs standing in for sets. Every time conventionality seems ready to pounce—mainly in the form of Milgram’s wife Sasha (Winona Ryder)—Almereyda layers on the meta.
In Rappaport’s great trio of documentary essays, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies, From The Journals Of Jean Seberg and Color Me Lavender, actors narrated the subterranean relationships in movie history while standing in front of frozen film clips and the artificially obvious. Sarsgaard acts as a Rappaportian guide, taking us step by step through his controversial social psychology tests. Twice as he’s pacing through a hallway addressing us an elephant walks behind him in one of Almereyda’s further audacious touches. What does the elephant mean? Well, what do the experiments (which I won’t go into here because you can easily Google them) reveal—about cruelty and base human nature?
No actor can be as interesting or dull as Sarsgaard, and he’s on fire as Milgram, his furrowed, piercing eyes (and later film beard that looks as fake as most of the film’s interiors) registering cold delight in what his work unveils. Your perception of his success or failure has a lot to do what how you view humanity. Was Milgram wrong in deceiving his subjects? As the experimentees we’re treated to a wealth of good actors (John Leguizamo, Anton Yelchin, Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards) all allowed terrible epiphanies about what they’re capable of and how they approach or defy authority. The cold, barren headquarters where Milgram operates is in effect the only “real” place in the movie—houses and cars are flimsy stages because to Milgram the only location that has definition for him is the controlled academic dungeon where he is overlord and potential savior.
I call Almereyda “minor” because his work, fine as it often is, doesn’t make great claims for itself, it doesn’t try to swallow you up. When he comes at you with a formal surprise it’s a genuine shock, like those ostensibly administered to the “learner” (Jim Gaffigan) in the experiment. Soderbergh would likely darken this material, but Almereyda keeps the spectrum breezy, clipped, pithy, like an objective report for the archives. “1984 was also the year that I died,” Milgram tells us with the throwaway casualness of an anecdote. Nothing, not even mortality, is as genuine or important to Milgram as what he gets from other people.
Winona Ryder’s career still hasn’t quite recovered from her shoplifting incident (come on, it’s just stuff!) and seeing her is always welcome even though she doesn’t leave much of an imprint on Experimenter, which is the point. Stanley Milgram isn’t one for domesticity. He briefly mentions his daughter but then digresses with “but at this part of the story she hasn’t been born yet” or words to that effect. His real children, his real marriage, is in the twitch of face and reaction brought on by those administering painful punishment, or what they think is punishment. There’s pathos in that, but the movie is too fleet-footed to dwell. Experimenter is an experiment itself, fooling us into thinking we’re watching something slight. Yet we think about it, and its volts accumulate.