“Human nature can be studied, but not avoided,” says social psychologist Stanley Milgram, as played by Peter Sarsgaard. And this was never more true than when Milgram created an experiment in 1961 to study humans’ obedience to authority regardless how wrong it feels at the time. It makes for a tremendously fascinating subject, but unfortunately it’s a fascination that Experimenter, a docudrama about Milgram’s experiments, could not replicate onscreen.
Let’s face it, not every tantalizing subject matter needs to make it to the big screen. The reason being that there are not enough good writing skills in the world to make even the most interesting topics translate well to film. This is exactly the case with Experimenter, a film that would have probably been better off as a full-scale documentary and not as a narrative. Milgram (Sarsgaard) is taken with the human ability to follow orders when it comes from authority, even at the risk of hurting someone physically. Milgram draws on his family history during World War II and impact of the Nazi regime’s taking orders.
The film’s narrative goes back and forth between third person and first person and begins to grate on the nerves after a while. For as much as Milgram’s experiments are fascinating and important, his personal life is not particularly noteworthy in comparison, and this is where the film so very clearly falters. The story remains stagnant throughout, no rise and fall to indicate that anything has changed and it quickly grows tiresome, redundant, and the third act is anti-climactic.
Director and writer Michael Almereyda (Hamlet, Cymbeline) doesn’t allow Sarsgaard’s character to develop and there’s far too much exposition on his part which comes off like Milgram is writing a dissertation, which would have been better on paper than being translated into a movie. Sarsgaard spends the entirety of the film speaking in a monotone voice and even the character interactions are incapable of providing any interest.
Winona Ryder has even less to do, unfortunately. It’s as though she was primarily cast to show that yes, Milgram had a social and private life outside of his work and he’s not just a loner scientist, but she doesn’t provide any cushioning to the film’s less-than-mediocre plot and execution. There are other well-known faces who make cameos in the film (usually as subjects to the experiment), including Anton Yelchin (Star Trek) and John Leguizamo (Moulin Rouge), but the inclusion of Kellan Lutz as William Shatner is perhaps the strangest addition to the film, perhaps because his scenes, where he plays Shatner playing a character on a show based on Milgram’s experiments, are oddly placed and feel forced.
Ultimately, Experimenter is a film that would have served its subject matter better as a documentary rather than as a narrative. The film is too slow-going, devoid of any emotion, and the shift between first and third person is almost headache-inducing. If the writing had been less about explaining every little detail to us and more about something else, then everyone would have been better for it. Bland and monotonous, Experimenter is certainly a forgettable film.