“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards,” wrote Søren Kierkegaard. This aphorism is employed a couple of times in Experimenter, a postmodern dramatization of Stanley Milgram’s early sixties obedience experiments—in which subjects were asked to shock other subjects for not answering questions correctly—and the fallout Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) experienced. Fitting form to content, director Michael Almereyda imbues Experimenter with the chilled tone of a social scientist. Speaking directly to the audience, Sarsgaard’s Milgram flagrantly breaks the fourth wall, unloading exposition in the same phlegmatic way he tells us, “In 1984, I died.” When Milgram and his wife (Winona Ryder) sit inside an empty airplane cabin or in a dining room or inside their car, the background is provided by an overt green screen backdrop, creating a sense of falseness. Ultimately, the experiment is the only thing that seems to be real, casting doubt on everything else shown. Yet, as postmodern techniques abound, Almereyda’s vision is sometimes too on-the-nose: a gray elephant follows Milgram in some scenes.
By Alec Julian & Carrie White