Michael Almereyda’s career is a strange one. I’m a huge fan of his sparse yet eccentric breed of 90s horror cinema with Nadja and The Eternal yet he followed those with an oddly cast, modern day Hamlet featuring Ethan Hawke as the titular character and then spent the following decade making documentary and short film work. Last year, Almereyda returned to Shakespeare with the near universally reviled Cymbeline – also starring Hawke, go figure – and this year he returns with Experimenter. And it’s finally, and happily, a return to form.
Experimenter is something that Almereyda had yet to do, a biopic. It tells the story of Stanley Milgram – played here by Peter Sarsgaard – and his controversial, yet still studied, obedience experiments in the 1960s. What’s most notable about Almereyda’s approach is how theatrical it is. Sarsgaard is constantly breaking the fourth wall, sharing details about what is happening and providing constant narration though he’s doing it as a future self, which can be rather jarring at times. Almereyda clearly has some sort of affinity for theater thanks to his two Shakespeare adaptations as well as his documentary This So-Called Disaster which showcases behind the scenes of a theater production. A variety of theatrical techniques are used in addition to the fourth wall breaking, with still images used as back drops as well as rear projection and sets that appear entirely confined to a stage. It’s visually striking and calls to mind his more aesthetically daring features of the 90s, particularly Nadja‘s inspired use of black and white photography.
This is also Almereyda’s funniest film, with a sardonic glee permeating the feature’s lean, 90 minute runtime. Sarsgaard pulls off the humor with apparent ease and his costars are all game as well, especially Winona Ryder, Jim Gaffigan, and Anthony Edwards who turn in some of their finest work. At times it does get bogged down in eccentricities and refrains from being as didactic as it could be, but at least William Shatner and Ossie Davis make an appearance! Its timeline goes up through the mid 1980s, ending with Milgram’s death, but a lot of ground is covered in that time with major events – JFK’s assassination, trial of Adolf Eichmann – peppered throughout. Almereyda’s film is at its strongest when the experiments themselves are happening on screen, he deftly switches from tension to gallows humor, doing a good job of keeping the audience in the dark at first. It’s hard to make a true story feel clever, but Almereyda manages to do just that.
Experimenter is a biopic that emphasizes style over substance ten fold, but it works thanks to a gifted ensemble cast and the direction of Michael Almereyda, who has given us his finest film since 1998. It’s consistently funny, aesthetically bold and raises some questions that we still – fifty years later – don’t have answers to. It may not give us much more insight into who Stanley Milgram was or what his legacy has become, but for a fleeting 90 minutes we are reminded of what he did and with finesse.