If you ignore his part in the awful Green Lantern movie, Sarsgaard has been in quite consistent in the roles he has played, or certainly has been the best thing about most of the films he has appeared in, even when the overall quality has dipped, it is rarely down to him. As such, I always think of his name on the cast list as a mark of quality. When you pair that sort of pedigree up with an intriguing subject for a biopic in the form of controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram, you have what should be a winning formula.
Experimenter follows Stanley Milgram as he conducts his experiment on social control, getting people to believe they are giving electric shocks to a complete stranger to "punish" them for failing to correctly answer a question. Only in reality the "stranger" is pretending to be shocked in the interest of gauging the subject’s reactions and how much pain they would inflict on said stranger. The experiment had wide reaching consequences and is still debated to this day in terms of the ethics of such an experiment. Milgram’s life, dealing with his detractors, his marriage, his moves from job to job and his continued research is detailed intricately right up until his death.
Milgram certainly had an interesting approach to research, and while there is a moral grey area surrounding some of his methods, it certainly provided some interesting results and Experimneter does a great job of covering the full gamut of arguments for and against the experiment. However, Milgram’s life after the experiment is not actually all that eventful, which leads to the film meandering in the second and third acts before ending fairly abruptly. Milgram’s latter teaching days working with young minds is intriguing, but is glossed over. There is also a strange narrative device employed where Milgram breaks the fourth wall constantly to discuss with the audience his theories and to push the idea that life itself is the real experiment, something that is dropped into proceedings throughout with the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face.
Sarsgaard does his best to make Experimenter a good film, and he manages to imbue Milgram with a sense of likeable eccentricity and charm, but also a sense of awkwardness that really helps the character seem more three-dimensional. Ryder also does well to give his wife something of substance, despite her relatively passive role in the story. However, the lack of any real story development beyond the incredibly intriguing promise means that the efforts both put in are somewhat wasted, and fail to drag Experimenter to greatness, despite their best efforts.
Experimenter is as frustrating as its premise is fascinating. The film should have so much more to it, and perhaps some creative license or some tweaking of the story might have made this something more exciting. As it stands it is a good biopic of an interesting historical figure, but it should possibly have been a thrilling, complex, and enthralling look at one of the most interesting minds in the field of psychology since its inception. Still, Sarsgaard is very good, and this is well worth watching for the experiment alone, and the ruminating on its controversial findings that follows.