The Banality of Evil in ‘Experimenter’

Michael Almereyda’s knotty, intellectually playful film about Stanley Milgram’s chilling 1961 experiments asks why so many people seemed so unwilling to accept his conclusions.

“Human nature can be studied, but not escaped.”

— Stanley Milgram

Michael Almereyda’s coruscating, ambitiously intellectual investigation Experimenter opens with a recreation of the 20th century’s most famous psychological experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1961. He put a volunteer in a room with an officious research assistant and called them “Teacher”. He instructed Teacher to ask questions of a “Learner” in another room, a man they could hear but not see, a man they were told had a heart condition. Teacher administered a series of apparently escalating and painful electric shocks to Learner, and to continue no matter how many times Teacher heard Learner grunt and shout in pain. Teacher was free to leave whenever they liked.

In Experimenter, Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) takes notes on hundreds of these sessions, standing behind a two-way mirror. Almereyda shoots the scene with a scalpel-like precision that heightens our anxiety. Many volunteers squirm with hesitation. Some ask the assistant if they will be responsible for whatever happens. Most of them deliver shock after shock, long after Learner has begged to be let out, and then fallen quiet.

It’s all stagecraft: the shocks are imaginary, Learner’s pleadings and agonies are recorded. But the hard kernel of reality behind that illusion persists: many of us will do apparently horrible things to other human beings just because we are told to, even without the threat of punishment. All it takes is a man in a lab coat with a clipboard and some imaginary scrim of authority and procedure saying, “Please continue, Teacher.”

Milgram’s experiment took place just 16 years after the ovens of the concentration camps stopped pumping human ash into the skies over Europe. Its results hang over the rest of this gripping film, which combines a biography of Milgram with a dramatization of his experiments on social relations, authority, and conformity. While the subject matter is dire, Almereyda’s approach is anything but. Hearkening back to the bracing pop modernism he brought to Hamlet (2000) — the one where Ethan Hawke performs the “To be or not to be?” soliloquy in a Blockbuster and Hamlet’s father disappears into a Pepsi machine — Almereyda keeps tweaking the story with surrealist cracks in the fourth wall. Experimenter manages a tricky balance, at once stagey, with blatantly artificial backdrops and all of Milgram’s ruminations directed at the audience, but not undermining the seriousness of its theme.

This approach makes the movie a deviously hard sell. Comic performers like Jim Gaffigan and John Leguizamo help to create an off-kilter tone, as does the appearance of Dennis Haysbert in a purposefully bad wig. (One of Almereyda’s better comic set-pieces is a recreation of the Milgram-inspired 1976 TV movie The Tenth Level, with Kellan Lutz as William Shatner and Haysbert as Ossie Davis.) The elephant that follows Milgram down the hallway while he delivers one his several asides to the audience about the importance of the Holocaust to his work, though, will be the thing that drives most people away in irritation. Is it a gag or a not-too-subtle allusion to the elephant in the room that few people in the ’60s were willing to grapple with directly?

As Milgram notes here, the experiment wrapped up in 1962, just days before the execution of Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi official whose capture by Mossad and televised trial in Israel helped snap the West’s myopia about the Holocaust. It also allowed Hannah Arendt, describing Eichmann’s “I was just doing my job” bureaucratic blandness, to introduce “the banality of evil” into the world’s moral conversation. People throw that phrase at Milgram throughout the film, as a means to interrupt what he’s trying to get at. It’s one of many ways Experimenter illuminates the unsettling nature of his work. Reducing his results to a cliché, when even Milgram doesn’t appear to be settled on any easy answer, curtails the enormity of their implications.

That might be what Almereyda is trying to do here. Instead of coming at the story straight on, he aims for a more ironic and thoughtful angle. The biographical elements are all here, from Milgram’s wife Sasha (Winona Ryder) to his time at Harvard and further investigations of authority and social connections (including the famous six degrees of separation experiment). But instead of just replicating the slapped-on period ‘70s fug of something like The Stanford Prison Experiment — a straightforward and uncurious recreation of Philip Zimbardo’s Milgram-esque experiment on power structures and sadism — Experimenter uses a glinting postmodern sheen that tries to replicate Milgram’s busy, bubbling inquisitiveness.

After the experiment, the subjects are asked, “Why did you listen to that man and not the man in pain?” None of them has a good answer. The dark gulf between what is asked and what isn’t said helps give Experimenter its provocative sting.

RATING 9 / 10