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Movie Review: Experimenter

By Van Williams, Contributor

[Magnolia Pictures; 2015]

Rating: 4.5/5

When Experimenter ended, there was no applause; the audience simply sat there and took it all in for a few moments that could have been mistaken for a lifetime. The people rose slowly and shuffled out. After being greeted by the Athena’s employees and the light of real life (oft forgot when entranced in the dark confines of a cinema) I heard quiet yet stimulated conversation about what a wonderful film Experimenter is.

Experimenter was first revealed at The Sundance Film Festival to overwhelmingly positive reviews. The movie follows the life of a bold, innovative and very controversial man, Stanley Milgram, a sociological psychiatrist portrayed impeccably by Peter Sarsgaard. The accompanying lead role of Milgram’s wife, Sasha, is played by Winona Ryder.

The film starts where Milgram’s career lifted off--with his famed 1961 obedience experiments. Wanting to get to the bottom of how people can be so callous, or why people simply listen to authority figures as if they have no free will, lead Milgram to create an experiment some considered ethically and morally unjust. If the experiment was proposed to an ethics committee of 2015, it’s likely it never would have been done. But Milgram had a fitting time and the place, and the results were astonishing.

Sarsgaard’s portrayal of Milgram is brilliant, painting him as not only an intellectual, but someone that had a sort of dry arrogance. He speaks in constant monotone because he doesn’t need to raise his voice--his is the only one that matters. Ryder’s performance is gripping as well, standing constantly by her husband’s side, no matter the criticism or critique they face.

The film is shot with a sarcastic, almost ironic feel, with large portions being in front of an obviously computer simulated backdrop. There is almost constantly some cheesy ‘60s background music playing, but this is what gives the movie its character. Experimenter has a presence and attitude; what makes this presence so special and impressive is the fact that it comes from everywhere. It is the cheesy backdrops and music, it is the way Milgram’s life is presented onscreen, it is Sarsgaard’s sarcastic performance. This movie is a product of its environment. There is dark humor here, history is here, but most importantly--there are thoughts to be provoked here. Experimenter has it all.

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