Yale University, 1961. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) designs a psychology experiment that remains relevant to this day, in which people think they're delivering painful electric shocks to an affable stranger (Jim Gaffigan) strapped into a chair in another room. Disregarding his pleas for mercy, the majority of subjects do not stop the experiment, administering what they think are near-fatal electric shocks, simply because they've been told to. With Nazi Adolf Eichmann's trial airing in living rooms across America, Milgram's exploration of authority and conformity strikes a nerve in popular culture and the scientific community. Celebrated in some circles, he is also accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster. His wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) anchors him through it all. 'Experimenter' invites us inside Milgram's whirring mind in this bracing portrait of a brilliant man whose conscience and creative spirit continue to be resonant, poignant, and inspirational.
'Experimenter' follows, in a rather unattached chronological fashion, the famous psychological experiments of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard). It is as intriguing as it is joyfully frustrating. That may sound a contradiction in terms, but I assure you it's not.
Director Michael Almereyda plays fast and loose with the concept of reality. While the film it provides us with the nuts and bolts of Milgram's research, it also ventures off into an artistic experiment of its own. Playing with rear projection, elephants in the room (literal ones), and a constant demolishing of the fourth wall Almereyda creates this joyous experience that caught me off guard. The frustrating aspect of this whole exercise comes into being when I'm forced to admit that some of the symbolism may have escaped me. That doesn't mean I enjoyed it any less, but it's one of those movies where you might walk away wondering what you just witnessed, but nevertheless you relished it, as confusing as it might be.
Milgram was the psychologist who is most famous for setting up an experiment in which a subject was to administer an ever-increasing litany of electric shocks to another participant. The shocks were supposed to be given whenever the other participant gave a wrong answer. The participants were sequestered, and the only true subject of the experiment was the person providing the electric shocks. The entire experiment was set up to see how far a human would go in administering pain to another human when an authoritative figure told them to continue.
The scenes in which the experiment is center stage are the most true to life, yet as soon as Milgram steps out of the confines of the appropriated room, the rules of reality melt away. He constantly addresses us, the viewers, speaking directly in the camera. Sarsgaard is the perfect actor to pull this off. He quietly commands attention.
The storyline moves like a dream, containing nothing resembling formulaic beats one might expect from a standard biopic. In truth it feels more like a stage play.
Refreshingly it isn't worried about retelling Milgram's life. Perhaps that's the most stimulating aspect of the film. Lesser biopics usually contain some sort of cradle-to-the-grave story, whereas this film picks up in the middle of Milgram's experiment and continues on as he wrestles with the controversy surrounding it.
At the center of the story is the idea that humans are unable or unwilling to accept their nature. When confronted with Milgram's findings – that a vast majority of humans will inflict pain on other humans simply because authority told them to – the public was offended that anyone would suggest such a thing. We don't want to know the truth about ourselves and Milgram's experiences after publishing his findings suggest as much.
Somehow Almereyda is able to wrap all of this heady scientific material inside of screenplay that against all odds is often filled with humor. At times it's cheerful and playful as Sarsgaard entrances with that coy smile of his. Then seamlessly it moves into more serious matters without jarring the viewer.
It's a movie that exists solely because of the vision of its director/writer. In other hands this likely turns into a run-of-the-mill biography snoozefest. Like Danny Boyle's 'Steve Jobs,' it figures out a way to recount the story in an unexpected, enthralling way.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
This is a barebones release from Magnolia, featuring only one xxGB Blu-ray Disc. It's packaged in a standard keepcase with no slipcover.
Unfortunately, Magnolia's transfer of 'Experimenter' leaves something to be desired. It's presented in 1080p and yet there are some visual issues that never seem to subside as the film progresses.
As with so many low budget films that find their way to Blu-ray, the chief complaint here is about constant banding. There are many scenes, especially when the picture fades in and out, where banding is entirely visible around the edges. As Sarsgaard walks out in the hallway, and an elephant starts following him, the top corners of the images are dancing with banding lines as the picture fades around the edges to focus in on Sarsgaard's face. This type of visual discrepancy is seen throughout the film. It's not just a one-time thing.
Banding aside, the clarity here is quite nice. Close-ups feature the requisite amount of facial detail one might expect. Shadows are a little dim, and crushing is an issue at times. Colors are bright and vivid when in full light. Noise peppers darker areas – for instance the side of the wall that's visible when the camera pans from the subject to Jim Gaffigan sitting inside the booth.
Considering what we expect from Blu-rays in terms of quality the visuals here aren't up to par. The banding is the most egregious error, and it happens too often to ultimately overlook. It's a shame.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is straight forward and front-heavy. Perhaps you could argue that it stays true to the movie's play-like structure, and presents the audio indeed, like a play. A great majority of the sound comes from the front and center channels. This is a dialogue-driven story without many auditory bells and whistles attached.
The dialogue is clean and clear, which is imperative since that's most of the sound produced. This film's soundtrack takes some liberties with traveling around the soundfield, but even then the rear channels aren't very active at all. The subwoofer is used sparingly, and really only for some of the lower notes in the soundtrack.
There aren't any noticeable technical issues with the track. It's mixed with good prioritization for the voices and they're placed nicely up front relative to where characters are located when talking. That's about all you could ask from a track like this. It gets the job done.
The Making of 'Experimenter' (HD, 6 min.) – This is a making-of featurette that feels more like promotional fluff. There's some behind-the-scenes footage, interviews, and discussion on characters, but not enough to satisfy.
Understanding Stanley Milgram: An Interview with Joel Milgram (HD, 5 min.) – Stanley's brother offers a brief interview discussing his brother's life work. He talks about how Almereyda was able to capture some of Stanley's characteristics and understood that he never wished to judge the subjects in his experiments.
Designing 'Experimenter' (HD, 5 min.) – More or less, a quick overview of the set design and the work that went into creating a period piece.
Almereyda's vision here is breathlessly artistic. I may not have understood every visual metaphor, but his film challenged me in a way biopics usually don't. The disappointment comes mainly with the video presentation presented here. In a way the visuals provided feel no different than watching a streaming version of the movie that might not have the best bandwidth. Audio is fine, if uneventful. Because of the technical issues I can't recommend someone buy this Blu-ray. However, one may not feel burned if they simply rent it.