It doesn’t take long for the Stanford Prison Experiment to stop feeling like an experiment and start feeling like a real, unpleasant prison situation. It doesn’t take long for the eighteen year old boys who’ve been selected to play mock prison guards to become too drunk with power and the boys who’ve been selected to play mock prisoners to be abused and degraded and thinking they’re actually prisoners. However, Stanford Psychology professor Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) keeps the study going.
Kyle Patrick Alverez’s alarming, uncomfortable “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is about the psychology behind the abuse of power; what kinds of situations make seemingly normal people turn cruel? It’s also a fascinating portrait of an obsessed, egotistical professor who’s determined to see his experiment through until the end. Additionally, the movie forces you to step into the shoes of the characters and think about what you would do in their situation
The Stanford Prison Experiment was conducted from August 14, 1971 to August 20, in the cramped, windowless basement of the Stanford University Psychology building. The goal of the study was to test the effects of prison on an individual. It took less than forty-eight hours for test subjects to assimilate into their dominant or submissive roles. The mock guards began inflicting psychological torture and humiliation—making them do continuous push-ups and jumping jacks, making them recite their prison number again and again, taking their beds away, making them go to the bathroom in metal buckets, tying them up, etc.
It’s disturbing how much a brown uniform, a pair of sunglasses and a nightstick can empower someone. It’s even more disturbing to see the pleasure and glee some of the “guards” take in humiliating their prisoners. In the movie, the meanest one (Michael Angarano) adopts a phony southern accent, imitating the sadistic prison captain Strother Martin from “Cool Hand Luke.” On the other side of the coin we witness mock prisoner Daniel (Ezra Miller) have a complete mental breakdown. Within two days, he goes from cocky and loud-mouthed, not taking the experiment very seriously, to a hysterical and frightened wreck.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment” is intense and unsettling; I went from nervously clutching my shoulders to violently biting my nails. Through a minimal, unassuming docudrama style, Alverez establishes an unnerving sense of heightened realism. He makes good use of the cramped “prison” setting, making an already stressful watching experience more stressful and claustrophobic. Cinematographer Jas Shelton often employs tracking shots taking us up and down the hallway, imitating the action of one frantically pacing back and forth. While watching, the picture hits you on a visceral level; you feel angry at the actions taking place on screen. How can these guys be so cruel?
And yet, when the credits role, the movie forces you to think logically about the situation. Your initial gut instinct is to pass judgment on the boys but it’s easy to do that from a position of spectatorship. It’s easy to say, “I would never do this” but if you were actually in their shoes, would that be the case? Similar to “Compliance” and “The Hunt,” “The Stanford Prison Experiment” evokes such a strong initial reaction out of you but then forces you to go back and examine it more closely. In the end you may be firm in your stance that you would never do such cruel things but hopefully you will have also considered multiple sides. We may all be capable of inflicting psychological torture.
A bevy of talented young actors mostly seen in independent projects portray the test subjects--Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons and Thomas Mann, among others--who all give authentic performances, even if their characters remain somewhat underdeveloped. However, Crudup is the standout-- delivering an obsessive, unsympathetic, slightly sociopathic performance that really digs deep into the character’s psyche. The study ends up taking Zimbardo some dark places, places I’m sure he never thought he’d go. Near the middle he says to the other Psychologists assisting him, “I had no idea it would turn out this way, but this is important to me.” He’s become so intertwined in the experiment that he demonstrates a disregard for his subjects. Things get iffy early but he pushes on because of a selfish determination. He even becomes so obsessed that he alienates himself from his girlfriend and fellow psychologists. By the end of the film it’s just him, watching the action unfold on a video monitor from another room.
“The Stanford Prison” is an engrossing psychological drama; one that affects you on a gut level as well as a cerebral one. A movie capable of conjuring up that kind of duel response is nothing short of successful.