You already know who Stanley Milgram is: he was the psychologist and researcher into human behavior who conducted the now famous — some would say infamous — experiment in which people were instructed to administer increasingly strong electrical shocks to a total stranger; most complied even over their own personal moral objections. The study, conducted at Yale University in the early 1960s and published in book form by Milgram in the early 70s, is considered essential to understanding our willingness to obey authority, how ordinary “good” people allow themselves to be complicit in terrible crimes such as the Holocaust; as the film notes, the study is referenced whenever some new group crime — such as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib — come to light. It is the explanation of, though never an excuse for, the “I was only following orders” defense.
Milgram conducted other, more benign experiments into human behavior, and also discovered the fact that the average person is only six degrees of separation from any other random person, but these studies don’t capture the dark side of our collective imagination or peer into the human psyche the way the electric-shock one does, and it’s that project around which Experimenter is built. Writer and director Michael Almereyda deploys a creepy-cool vibe of constructed cinematic artificiality that echoes the illusory nature of Milgram’s experiment — in which the application of electric shocks, among other aspects, was actually fake — though of course we know from the outset that we are being manipulated (which also echoes a criticism of his project presented here, comparing and contrasting it with a stage play). Peter Sarsgaard (Night Moves, Very Good Girls), as Milgram, frequently speaks directly into the camera to explain himself and his work to us, and the actor takes on a deliberately stilted attitude… which is only underscored as a pose — of the Scientist and the Thinker and the Rational Man — on the few occasions when he slips into warm, poignant humanity, in moments with Milgram’s wife (Winona Ryder: Homefront, Frankenweenie) or his small daughter (Lucy Fava).
This is no boring biopic, nor is it a dry journalistic look at an essential examination of human nature. Experimenter is, instead, a sort of experiment on the viewer, to determine how many reminders that what we are watching is but a mocked-up replica of reality we can handle before we get tossed out of the illusion. Except here, we never do. Milgram notes here that “human nature can be studied but not escaped, especially your own.” We may study cinematic illusion here, but we are never less than totally enthralled by it.