Peter Sarsgaard is capable of playing a wide range of characters, but there’s an expression all those characters share. It’s equal parts pity and exhaustion. It’s strong and distinctive enough to suggest they all look at life the same way. Their hooded eyes and patient temperaments hint at a hard-earned wisdom that’s made them sad, but accepting of life’s frequent awfulness — even when they’re responsible for those that awfulness. You can see it best in Garden State, when Sarsgaard, caught stealing from a corpse, gives Zach Braff’s character a look that says, “I know you’re disappointed in me. I’m disappointed in me, too. But this is the way things are, and you’re better off knowing that than not.”
That look can suggest kindness or villainousness, depending on the context. It can also occasionally suggest a clinical distance, as it does in Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story, Michael Almereyda’s unconventional biopic of the famous social psychologist. Experimenter opens with a depiction of the early ’60s study that made Milgram famous (and his name synonymous with “disturbing implications.”) Two men (Anthony Edwards and Jim Gaffigan) participate in a study in which one will assume the role of “teacher” and the other of “learner.”
When Gaffigan, the learner, seated unseen in the next room, delivers an incorrect answer to a memorization test, Edwards is charged with administering a series of increasingly powerful electric shocks. The stated goal is to study the effects of punishment on learning. But it’s a rigged game: Gaffigan plays a plant who’s in on the experiment. The real goal is to see how far one person will go in hurting another simply because someone in authority says it must be done. Like most, Edwards’ character sweats and asks if what he’s doing is really necessary. Then he goes all the way with it.
Almereyda — best known for the moody vampire film Nadja and his contemporary, Ethan Hawke-starring Hamlet — lets Sarsgaard’s Milgram explain himself, his methods, and his conclusions by directly addressing the camera. It’s an unusual approach that pays off. His informed, professorial approach clearly conveys the substance of his work while also revealing his character and the ways in which his past informs his choices. It’s mere chance, he notes, that his family immigrated to America, sparing him from the death camps. Yet, in America, he finds the same willingness to go along with those in command, no matter how immoral their demands. Adolf Eichmann’s execution, the film pauses to note, took place four days after the conclusion of Milgram’s experiment. Throughout his trial, he claimed he was only a “transmitter” for others’ orders.
Almereyda smartly keeps the focus on the work. Milgram, at least by all evidence in Experimenter, lived a quiet, happy existence with his smart, devoted wife Sasha (played here by Winona Ryder) and their children. Drama came in the form of others’ reaction to his work, particularly those who rushed to dismiss conclusions that, in Milgram’s own words, were “terrifying and depressing.” Sarsgaard plays him as a man who’s walked into the heart of darkness and returned haunted by a better understanding of how the world works. He’s, in other words, the quintessential Peter Sarsgaard character.