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Experimenter

Year: 2015
Production Co: BB Film Productions
Director: Michael Almereyda
Writer: Michael Almereyda
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder, Anton Yelchin, Anthony Edwards, Kellan Lutz, John Leguizamo, Dennis Haysbert

This low-fi period piece will remind you of several other high quality, awards-worthy dramas about pivotal moments in history you don't know the full story behind.

It tells the story of Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), the psychologist behind groundbreaking research into responses to authority in the 1960s, the credibility over which he fought to maintain for the rest of his life.

Milgram's famous experiment connected subjects to an accomplice of he and his team in the next room, administering ever-increasing electric shocks in response to incorrect answers to trivial questions and being told to continue even when their 'victim' complained and demanded to be let out.

No matter how much they protested or disliked what they were doing, most people kept on delivering the shocks, even though they had no idea the accomplice was sitting in the next room doing the crossword, not even hooked up to the machine (which was fake anyway).

Inspired by the treatment of Jewish people at the hands of so many Nazi officers, Milgram was trying to investigate how people can be coerced into performing harmful acts to others with no other stimulus besides someone in authority telling them to do so.

But after the initial scenes depicting the experiments and the results history shows us Milgram published, the film is anything but a typical period drama. As Milgram becomes a celebrity because of his book on the subject and defends his methods years later after they're called into question, writer/director Michael Almereyda uses a very offbeat toolbox to tell the story.

The most obvious example is the multiple fourth wall breaks. As Milgram walks around the campus and corridors of Yale University – even while having drinks at the home of a professional rival – he routinely stops whatever he's doing to address the audience directly about the subtext of what's going on with his work, the people who respond to it or what it might do for the field of psychology.

At one point, walking towards and talking directly to the camera after saying goodbye to his colleagues and locking up for the night, an elephant turns a corner and ambles down the hall behind him, academics and staff going about their business and completely ignoring it. You hope it isn't a metaphor as over-ripe as there being an elephant in the room that everyone's ignoring, but it's not very clear what else it could be.

Such theatrical flourishes make Experimenter a bit too weird to really make an impact, and you're left wondering if it wouldn't have been better as either a play that suited the unique style or a more straight-arrow drama.

Sarsgaard and his co-stars – including the still-luminous and quite ageless Winona Ryder as his wife Sasha – are all practised at this style, period and tempo (see 2009's An Education, which introduced Carey Mulligan to the world), and there's an interesting story there. But finding the human story behind it might have benefited – ironically – from a less experimental approach.

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