It was August 14, 1971 when Philip Zimbardo, a Stanford University professor, led 24 male students into the basement of the Stanford Psychology Department building for what would become known as The Stanford Prison Experiment, a study funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research designed to explore the issue of conflicts between military prison guards and prisoners. Scheduled to last two weeks, The Stanford Prison Experiment was instead abruptly halted after a mere six days when the "experiment" began taking on an incredibly terrifying reality for everyone involved including Zimbardo himself.
Written by Tim Talbott and directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez (C.O.G.), The Stanford Prison Experiment manages to be simultaneously jarring and even more disturbingly normal in the way it portrays how a simple college psych study went so incredibly wrong. After a relatively calm first 24 hours, The Stanford Prison Experiment begins to go awry when on day two those who had been randomly divided into guards or prisoners begin to matter-of-factly yet jarringly immerse themselves in their assigned roles. This is particularly true with a guard played with unflinching authenticity by Michael Angarano. Nicknamed John Wayne, he makes the decision on the first day to play his role personifying Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke.
If you know that film, then you know how frightening that can be.
On the flip side, Ezra Miller plays a key prisoner, #8612, whose defiance amps up the tension between the prisoners and the guards. Miller, whose big breakthrough came with We Need to Talk About Kevin and who has also turned in memorable performances in The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Trainwreck, is a full-on wild ball of vulnerability bordering on psychosis. It's a quietly mesmerizing performance and further proof that Miller is one of this decade's most promising young actors.
The entire ensemble cast, which includes Tye Sheridan (Mud), Moises Arias (Despicable Me 2), Nelsan Ellis (Get On Up), Johnny Simmons (The To Do List), and James Wolk (television's Mad Men) among others, is across the board top notch and, perhaps even more remarkably, consistent in tone. There are times when The Stanford Prison Experiment feels like a feature-length documentary so calm and matter-of-fact is its presentation. It's a testament to Alvarez's direction that he knows the inherent power of this material and he doesn't try to amp it up even a notch.
Despite the involvement of Zimbardo in the film's development, it's also to the credit of everyone involved that The Stanford Prison Experiment neither sympathizes or glorifies the professor or this experiment. In essence, it feels like at times that Alvarez has created the film to do for the audience exactly what Zimbardo did for the experiment - play observer, somewhat understandably yet also somewhat guiltily.
During a time in our society when there is so much controversy over the often conflicted and violent relationships, and I use that term relationship lightly, between the police and those they encounter as prisoners or "suspects," The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film that is both a period piece yet remarkably relevant today.
Just ask the families of Sandra Bland. Michael Brown. Samuel DuBose.
Wisely, Alvarez and Talbott don't place blame. Instead, they simply present the facts, from original transcripts and Zimbardo's consultations, and show piece-by-piece how the experiment came apart person by person. Zimbardo himself is blamed, yet he's also not dismissed from blame. Billy Crudup serves up his best performance in years as Zimbardo, embodying him with a sort of calm, semi-narcissistic quality that makes you understand how he ultimately lost control of the experiment and how he ultimately, guided by the demanding presence of girlfriend and eventual wife Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby), called an end to the experiment that is still a highly talked about experiment in psychology programs nationwide yet, by many, also deemed a massive failure.
If you are aware of the history of The Stanford Prison Experiment, and it always surprises me how many are not, then you will likely find yourself completely enthralled by Alvarez's quiet underplaying of the film's story. These characters aren't given back stories, but instead they are painted to us as they'd have been painted back then - prisoners and guards. Students. Boys. Young men.
The Stanford Prison Experiment isn't always the easiest film to watch, yet it's an important film to watch for anyone interested in criminal justice, social justice or simply the psychology of roles. As brought to life by Alvarez and his rather remarkable ensemble, The Stanford Prison Experiment asks all the important questions and challenges us, the audience, to answer them for ourselves.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic