The experiment taught me something about the plasticity of human nature. Not the evil, not the aggressiveness, but a certain kind of malleability.
I went into this movie with a lot of hopes. Peter Sarsgaard as Stanley Milgram in a film about the famous Milgram experiments of the 1960s? I’m sold. Well, unfortunately the film is just pretty terrible. Sarsgaard does his best, but he’s hamstrung by a strange script and a weird directorial vision. The story of Milgram’s experiments, in which average people were willing to deliver intensifying electrical shocks to subjects even after the subjects indicated severe distress and even passed out, have a load of disturbing and thought-provoking things to say about human nature and evil cruelties that human beings perpetrate on each other. But the script is interested in those things only backhandedly and the film spends only about half an hour on these tests and then moves on to other events in Milgram’s life, none of which hold any real interest. And for some reason, Almereyda has a strange, surrealist vision of this story, in which elephants randomly stroll down college hallways, scenes take place on obvious stage sets with photographed backgrounds and Milgram and often the other characters are aware of the camera. I feel like there’s a great, thoughtful film here that tells this story in a more conventional way, rather than muddying the waters with a lot of pointless theatricality. In the end the film feels weirdly glib about the notion that Milgram’s studies are pretty disturbing.
This is too bad because the cast does their best. Sarsgaard does his best, as usual. Winona Ryder, an actress I haven’t seen in ages, is winning, naturalistic and quite good as Milgram’s wife. Jim Gaffigan is brilliant in a small role as a blustering assistant of Milgram’s during the 1960s experiments. And John Leguizamo, of all people, has a wonderful one scene cameo as one of Milgram’s most intensely conflicted test subjects. But really, after a solid, clinical first half hour, the film just meanders into odd territory, spending time on other Milgram experiments, ambiguous scenes about his marriage (how ambiguous? Well, either Milgram or his wife or possibly both of them . . . MAY have had an affair, but that’s as far as I can tell you) and pointless surrealist flourishes. It’s a deeply frustrating film, willing to be silly in some super annoying ways when it needs to be thinking about more serious things. I’m honestly not sure what Almereyda was going for here, but it doesn’t work at all. Too bad; the cast deserved a much better movie. 1 star.
tl;dr – talented cast are wasted in a meandering, shallow, glib and surreal treatment of the Milgram experiments; a great movie could have been made with more conventional treatment. 1 star.