Eclectic director Michael Almereyda (The Eternal, 2000’s Hamlet) turns his sights onto the ground-breaking true story of Stanley Milgram, the famed psychologist who in 1961 conducted a previously unheard of and ultimately hugely controversial experiment.
Its purpose? To test the blind obedience of recipients when the consequences of their actions didn’t fall at their feet. This involved pairing them up with a partner – a stooge planted by Milgram – who they believed they were electrocuting whenever they answered a prepared question incorrectly.
It’s a fascinating topic of scientific history, one taught in just about every psychology course around the world these days, but unfortunately the film falls way short of doing it justice. Its mix of quasi-documentary styling and semi-autobiographical filling of the blanks – namely how his work affects his home life with his wife (Winona Ryder) – feels entirely at odds with one another rather than any sort of melding of ideas.
Much of the film is watching the experimenter being conducted over and over – same thing, different subject and simply watching the reactions which range from subdued acceptance to indignant outrage that they’ve been dubiously tricked into so-called psychological harm. This storytelling approach can often make it feel cold, dry and rather repetitive – by about the fourth go around we’ve firmly got the picture and yet we keep on going back to the same thing.
As a biopic of a once misunderstood and, in some circles, deplored figure it never feels like we get truly under the skin of the man, either as a human being or as an advocate for scientific truth. Though well-acted by the always magnetic Sarsgaard, he enters and leaves the film as a frustrating cypher.
To its credit, however, there’s some interesting things going on in terms of the style of filmmaking used to tell the story. Constant fourth wall breaking to explain to us the nature of the central experiment – and several others besides – and unusual visuals like scenes acted against overtly fake backdrops make for an interesting visual experience that’s hard to pin down.
The idea of using cinema as a means to explore psychological lessons in human nature is an intriguing one and it’s been done successfully in the past including in Compliance, which looked at trust in blind authority and Das Experiment (and its US remake), which looked at human behaviour of authority and obedience within a prison setting. And Experiment certainly doesn’t fall short of strong intention or worthiness.
But it’s ultimately a case of it being a bit too experimental for its own good, as if the director is just chucking lots of tricks and ticks at the screen hoping that something will stick – veritable style over substance. What results in a rather dry, one-note piece of cinema that doesn’t tell you much a quick look at the relevant Wikipedia page couldn’t tell you. An admirable experiment but ultimately a failed one.