How mean can you get people to be to famous nice guy Jim Gaffigan, just by asking politely? That’s the question at the heart of the trailer for Experimenter, Michael Almereyda’s new film about a series of controversial experiments in social psychology. The film stars Peter Sarsgaard, apparently conducting his own experiments into the realm of awful facial hair as Dr. Stanley Milgram, the Yale psychologist whose fascination with the rise of fascist regimes lead him to see how far past their morals people would go when faced with a figure of resolute authority.
Gaffigan plays Milgram’s confederate in the experiments, an actor who pretends to receive increasingly dangerous electric shocks administered by research subjects—played by recognizable faces like Anthony Edwards and John Leguizamo—who’ve been tricked into thinking they’re participating in a study of short-term memory. Meanwhile, Sarsgaard watches from behind a one-way mirror, musing to himself on the nature of evil.
It’s a big year for movies tackling famous experiments in social psychology; a film adaptation of The Stanford Prison Experiment, conducted by Milgram’s friend, Philip Zimbardo, was released into theaters earlier this month. Both movies also played at Sundance, with The A.V. Club’s A.A. Dowd giving a mutedly positive review to Experimenter, praising Almereyda’s visual flourishes while criticizing the film’s sometimes-rote tone.