One of our lowest-profile indie-film treasures, director Michael Almereyda never makes the same movie twice, toggling from Pixelvision experiment (1992's Another Girl, Another Planet) to downtown-hipster-horror (1994's Nadja) to modern-day Shakespeare, art documentaries, postmod shorts, home-movie avant-garde, and weirdly meditative dramas with no definition. Experimenter may be his Zelig or American Hustle, the ironic, icy, self-conscious riff on history that lands him at the front of the cultural brainpan.
The history is the work of Dr. Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard), the Yale psychologist who in 1961 lab-tested his ideas about "role-playing, authority, conformity" in what became an infamous masterpiece of clinical sleight of hand. Milgram would put a pair of test subjects in separate rooms, one administering electrical shocks to the other. Immediately we see that the shock-receiver (Jim Gaffigan) is part of the doctor's team, in actuality receiving no jolts and instead playing painful prerecorded vocalizations. The true test subjects (of whom we see scores, played by, among others, Anthony Edwards, John Leguizamo, and Taryn Manning) follow orders with varying degrees of distress.
Why did they go all the way? Would we? The world around Milgram was freshly wading through the Eichmann trials in Jerusalem at the time, and the doctor's express intent was to plumb the moral conundrum of the Holocaust.
The movie is itself a rat maze of one-sided mirrors, anonymous hallways, compartmentalized instances of watching, being watched, seeing and not-seeing. Sarsgaard's saturnine suaveness lends Milgram's role as puppetmaster a menacing air, but the human meat of the movie is in the one-offs, the parade of faces about whom we know nothing but the immediacy of their inner crisis. It amounts to a gallery of thumbnail acting coups.