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Review: Experimenter at VIFF

The Vancouver International Film Festival wrapped up last week after two weeks of showcasing over 375 films from 70 countries. I had a festival program riddled with highlights and stars next to films I wanted to check out, but due to my BCIT student schedule (I’m sure you can relate) I could only manage one. Which film to pick was a tough call, and unfortunately I made the wrong one.

The Experimenter tells the story of American social psychologist Stanley Milgram, a man known for, and often overshadowed by, his obedience experiments in the early 1960s. You’ve likely heard of the experiments if you’ve given even a cursory glance at a psychology textbook in your lifetime. Milgram placed his subject in a room and led them to believe that they were conducting an experiment on learning. They were given control of a shock generator that was hooked up to another participant (or so the subject was lead to believe) in another room. The subject was then instructed to ask the other participant a series of questions. When the participant answered the questions wrong, the subject was to administer a shock; the voltage of the shock increased with each wrong answer. Unable to see the other participant, the subject could only hear the other participant’s responses to the shock through the wall separating them. Despite the cries of pain, requests to stop, and eventually unsettling silence from the other room, the subject continues to ask questions and administer shocks simply because he is asked politely to do so by the researcher. The experiments and its results were remarkably interesting, but unfortunately for the film that just wasn’t enough.

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Experimenter seems disjointed from the start. It presents itself like an awkward teenager unsure of what it is and still struggling to find its voice. The film dives aggressively into the experiments at the start and rushes through their premise faster than my introductory paragraph. Ignoring the tense psychological thriller goldmine of the experiments themselves, the film instead focuses on the story of Stanley Milgram. The issue here is that Stanley Milgram’s story adds no value to the premise of the film. The man is remembered primarily for his obedience experiments, and rightfully so. Aside from a few other mildly interesting experiments he conducted after, he lived an ordinary life of no real consequence; a reality that writer, director, and producer Michael Almereyda seems to adamantly deny.

I wish I could say that despite the lack of endearing story that the film was visually engaging and well shot but I can’t fall back on that either. The shots are often strangely composed, including a consistent framing that cuts off the top of Milgram’s head. Is this supposed to be symbolic? Is his ego that large? Is he bigger than the university gives him credit for? If any of this is the case, the character didn’t match the symbolism. I didn’t get it, and it just came off as a noticeable detraction from the film.

At times Experimenter seems like a play that was poorly adapted for the screen. Not only does Milgram break the fourth wall in order to perform monologues directly to the audience (show, don’t tell Michael), but during certain scenes they actually appear to be using leftover backdrops from the stage, almost as if they stretched their budget too thin and just said to heck with it (as seen in the image below).

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The score is distracting and appears sporadically throughout the film. It overpowers monologues and strains your concentration in the process.

Ultimately, Experimenter comes off as a made-for-tv mock docudrama that just couldn’t find its footing. It failed to identify the value in the story, tried to be everything, and spread itself too thin. Perhaps if you had no previous knowledge of the obedience experiments the movie could hold it’s ground for 90 minutes, but I’m convinced reading the Wikipedia article would be more rewarding than watching the movie.