Peter Sarsgaard is an interesting actor. Every time I see him on screen, I roll my eyes and think he’s going to bore me with his performance. I’m always pleasantly surprised that he’s perfect for the part he was cast. This is another example of that. He plays Dr. Stanley Milgram, a Jewish psychologist, whose parents fled Europe to avoid the Nazis. Since so many people wondered why Germans could just go along with the demands of the Nazis, Milgram does some experiments at Yale. He wants to see just how far people will go when told do by somebody of “authority”.
It was a missed opportunity to tell the audience so early about Milgram’s parents. It would’ve been a lot more powerful to find out late in the movie why he was interested in doing these experiments. It also would’ve been better if the writer/director Michael Almereyda didn’t keep breaking the fourth wall to have Milgram tell us what was going on. And somebody explain to me what the deal was with the elephant that sometimes followed him. Are we to wonder about the “elephant in the room”?
I was also perplexed by some of the scenes being shot like a bad ‘40s film. You could see the fake backgrounds (which were especially distracting when characters are driving in a car). And don’t even get me started on how fake the beard looked when the film jumps to the ‘70s.
It’s a shame because the first 30 minutes was captivating. There’s a great recreation of the experiments that would eventually result in a best selling book. Those experiments are talked about in psych classes everywhere.
Participants are paid a certain amount of money, and one is chosen as the teacher, the other a student. The teacher is given specific orders to shock the student any time they get an answer wrong. The student, a nervous Jim Gaffigan who says he also has a heart condition, doesn’t fair well. We hear him screaming with each shock administered. After the first session, you see that Gaffigan is actually working with Milgram and his screams have been pre-recorded. He wasn’t shocked at all, but was a bit shocked that most of the participants continued to shock him even after pleas to stop.
A lot of character actors portray participants, including Anthony Edwards (Top Gun), Taryn Manning, Anton Yelchin, and someone who I loved in Chef and American Ultra – John Leguizamo. It was interesting watching his facial expressions as he contemplates whether to continue shocking the other participant.
Winona Ryder plays wife Sasha. She’s fine in the role, although not given a lot to do.
Twilight star Kellan Lutz is oddly cast as William Shatner (in a cheesy TV movie made about Milgram).
This film had some thought provoking stuff, obviously. And when we watch the edits early on, showing various people and how they react to shocking participants…you wish they would’ve just kept the film focused on all that. Now, there’s nothing wrong with them going the biopic route they went. They just made a rather weak one. Had they stuck with the experiments and how they effected folks involved, it would’ve been strong. These are the types of experiments that shown in a film are a lot more powerful than the written page. Almereyda should’ve taken advantage of that fact.
The score worked well, and the performances were all solid. The movie is just a bit to abstract and disjointed.
It gets extra credit for showing a cool Jaguar XKE.
I’m giving it 2 stars out of 5 and I’m almost certain audiences are going to be turned off by the different attempts at stylistic filmmaking. After all, this isn’t an experiment from a film professor at a university, but a movie that studios want you to spend money on.