Editor’s Notes: The Stanford Prison Experiment is currently out in limited release.
It’s an infamous event that was such a milestone in the study of human behavior that it is taught in every psychology class. In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo built a mock prison in the basement of Stanford University and randomly assigned twenty-four male students the roles of guards and prisoners. Zimbardo’s goal was to study how the institution effects the individual, as well as examining the psychology of imprisonment. To everyone’s shock and surprise, the experiment had to be cancelled after only six days because of how quickly things turned violent. Select footage of the experiment exists as public record, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez has methodically recreated the notorious experiment in the aptly titled The Stanford Prison Experiment.
This is an incredibly intense film that depicts horrifying acts of dehumanization. Alvarez observes these acts coldly and methodically, like a fly on the wall.
As a psychology graduate working in a counseling center that provides treatment, my girlfriend has had every detail of Zimbardo’s experiment pounded into her head and can list off every fact by heart. Mere minutes into the film, she leaned over and asked me if I knew who the most popular subjects for psychology experiments were. “White rats and college students,” she said with that enchanting smile of hers. As the film went on, her smile quickly faded and was replaced by a perturbed frown that continued to grow as the film wore on. Being able to understand the study and spout off concepts was one thing, but actually seeing the scenario played out hammered home just how intense those six days in a Stanford basement were.
It’s a testament to Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s methodic recreation of the Stanford Prison Experiment just how well his film conveys the dark side residing in all humans and the horrifying things of which they are capable given the right circumstances This is an incredibly intense film that depicts horrifying acts of dehumanization. Alvarez observes these acts coldly and methodically, like a fly on the wall. Cinematographer Jas Shelton, who previously collaborated with Alvarez on C.O.G. and has also worked with the Duplass brothers on a number of occasions, conjures up a eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere rife with paranoia. The Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s even harder to look away.
The Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s even harder to look away.
Another facet of the film that makes it such a riveting watch is it’s dynamite cast, which is essentially a mile-long list of today’s most promising talent. Sporting an incredible cast of players, The Stanford Prison Experiment rivals any other cast we have or will see this year. The most talked about performance will be that of Michael Angarano, high praise given that he is part of a cast that features Ezra Miller, Billy Crudup, Tye Sheridan, James Wolk , Olivia Thirlby, Johnny Simmons, Moises Arias and Nelsan Ellis.
Angarano plays the docile Christopher Archer, who adopts an entirely different personality and becomes the unofficial leader of the guards. Donning a southern accent straight out of Cool Hand Luke, Archer subjects his guards to a multitude of unethical scenarios. As the mind behind the experiment, Billy Crudup nails the gravitas of his role as Philip Zimbardo, but those who have seen the man’s lectures and are familiar with how he enjoys keeping things light will likely be disappointed that characteristic isn’t portrayed or even alluded to in the film.
Though it does the film many favors, there comes a point in The Stanford Prison Experiment where the detached fly-on-the-wall tactics of the film begin to do the film some disservice. This is the third film inspired by Zimbardo’s experiment, but the first to explicitly depict the actual experiment. Zimbardo served as a consultant for the entire film, but it would seem that what really interested Alvarez and his screenwriter Tim Talbott were the prisoners themselves. The majority of screen time is devoted to the prisoners and their interactions with the guards. While we get a glimpse into how the experiment is effecting the prisoners once the guards have left, we rarely get a look at the actual guards and how the experiment is effecting them once they leave the basement.
Outside of the prison, characterization for people like Zimbardo and the others running the experiment is limited to mere plot beats and robs the movie of interesting insight. Futhermore, so many of the characters are hard to distinguish from each other. While this is most likely an intentional decision, it is done in the most basic of ways and ultimately detracts from the overall effect of the film. Ultimately, the focus on methodically recreating the events of the experiment robs the movie of the depth and characterization that it deserved.
By the time the film reaches its third act, the film just ends without providing further insight or even a definitive ending. Though the third act could use some work, The Stanford Prison Experiment remains an intense and riveting watch. With the talk of abuse of authority so prominent in the news as of late, The Stanford Prison Experiment seems more relevant than ever. Though the film could use more depth and characterization, the overall effect and implications of the film are hard to shake. It has been almost 45 years since the Stanford Prison Experiment. How much have we really learned?
ith the talk of abuse of authority so prominent in the news as of late, The Stanford Prison Experiment seems more relevant than ever. Though the film could use more depth and characterization, the overall effect and implications of the film are hard to shake. It has been almost 45 years since the Stanford Prison Experiment. How much have we really learned?