Catch ‘Experimenter’ – One of 2015’s Best – Now on Blu-ray

by Eric Melin on January 4, 2016

in Blu-ray/DVD Reviews,Reviews

experimenter-blu-ray-magnolia[Rock Fist Way Up]

One of the biggest challenges any filmmaker faces when producing a biopic is adapting a life’s worth of extraordinary work and still achieving real insight into the fabric of the person being profiled.

In writer/director Michael Almereyda‘s Experimenter, this is accomplished by making sure that the core concerns of his controversial “obedience to authority” experiments dovetail nicely not just with the character traits of psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), but also the formal construction of the movie itself.

The Milgram experiments, started in the early 1960s, came to define the man, so its no wonder they are at the center of Almereyda’s film. But a less (pardon the pun) experimental film would treat his work in too simplistic a fashion, settling on a standard story of fame and notoriety. Experimenter shows us how Milgram constructed a false reality to test his subjects’ very real reactions, all the while reminding us with that we are watching a false construction of reality ourselves.

For those not familiar with the experiments, Almereyda sucks us in immediately with the point of view of one of the subjects. Told that he’ll be assuming the role of teacher in an experiment on the effect of punishment on memory and learning, unassuming Mr. Miller (Anthony Edwards) is told to deliver painful electric shocks to another man (who he cannot see) every time the wrong answer is produced. The real experiment, of course, is testing how far a person will go when given orders, and was inspired by the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, who said he was merely following orders when sending hundreds of thousands of Jews to extermination camps during the Holocaust.

As Milgram, Sarsgaard narrates the movie and constantly breaks the fourth wall during all kinds of artificial reconstructions, including enough “walking and talking” sequences to make Aaron Sorkin jealous. The catch is: At one point, there is literally an elephant in the room. The figurative elephant is that the psychological establishment who called for Milgram’s head by attacking his unconventional methods were actually masking their anger at the disturbing results, which showed just how susceptible people continue to be in the face of “authority.”

Milgram himself is as disappointed by the results as anyone would be, and Almereyda uses his wife Alexandra “Sasha” Milgram (played by Winona Ryder) as the sounding board for the implications these findings bring up. Sure they sometimes talk about the usual travails of being a couple and raising a family, but their relationship is also used to engage in true intellectual discussion — an exploration of all of the surrounding issues. Some people might find it emotionally stunting; I found it fascinating. After all, it’s the nature of human beings that’s under the microscope here, so that more than makes up for the kind of typical marriage-is-hard-cuz-dedication-to-work histrionics one might usually get in a biopic.

As the questions run deeper, Experimenter becomes even more honest about “fooling” its audience with its false construction of reality. Greenscreens and back-projection techniques make it obvious we are looking at actors on a set. In some cases, they backgrounds are black and white while the actors and a small set of props are color. Period-specific footage is interspersed and then interrupted by Sarsgaard and company.

When the film draws to a close, it’s clear that Milgram’s ideas continue to hold water in the modern world, even as people in cultures across the globe continue to repeat the same mistakes. Experimenter would make a fascinating double bill with The Big Short, which breaks the fourth wall in a similar, although less jarring and uncomfortable way. Another terrifying companion piece would be The Act of Killing, which explores an unfathomable amount of self-denial.

Experimenter is one of the best and most overlooked films of the year, and definitely worth catching up with as soon as possible. Unfortunately, a trio of quick-and-dirty special features don’t really give much insight into the making of the film. Chalk this up to a missed opportunity. Almereyda isn’t interviewed once, and they consist mostly of scenes from the film and some short on-set interview segments with actors, producers, and set designers. One of the featurettes interviews Milgram’s brother and the one statement of note there is that Experimenter got Stanley the person right, where two previous book biographies missed the mark.

Bonus Features

The Making of EXPERIMENTER

Designing EXPERIMENTER

Understanding Stanley Milgram: An Interview With Joel Milgram

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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