The Stanford Prison Experiment
by George Wolf
“Should we step in?”
“No..let’s see where this goes.”
“THIS IS where it goes!”
Imagine watching the ugliness of human behavior materialize in front of your eyes and realizing you not only lit the spark, but enthusiastically fanned the flames?
That very scene proves a pivotal moment in The Stanford Prison Experiment, a completely mesmerizing account of the legendary 1971 psychology study.
If you’re not familiar, the experiment was Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s attempt to study the effects of incarceration with a 2 week prison simulation in the Stanford University psychology building. Attracting volunteers through an offer of a $15 per day salary, Zimbardo and his research team assigned 24 young men to roles as either “guard,” or “prisoner” and monitored the events via video camera.
After 6 days, the guards’ behavior turned so depraved, Zimbardo shut the project down.
Wait, didn’t this movie come out five years ago?
The Experiment did, but that was a fictionalized version based on a novel. This time, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez draws from Zimbrano’s own book, as well as the actual transcripts from both the experiment and the exit interviews, to craft an unflinching look at just what we’re capable of.
In the years since it took place, the experiment has reappeared in pop culture numerous times – most notably during the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. But while the possible conclusions drawn from the SPE continue to be debated, the film wisely keep its focus on the lives affected during those 6 harrowing days.
We watch events unfold through Zimbrano’s perspective, delicately delivered in a career performance from Billy Crudup. From innocent beginnings, through an angry defense of his methods, to the moment the doctor realizes what he hath wrought, Crudup is riveting, aided by a taut script from Tim Tabott that doesn’t tiptoe around Zimbrano’s culpability.
The stable of young actors in the supporting cast are uniformly stellar, led by Ezra Miller as the first prisoner to break down, and Michael Angarano as a power drunk guard who insists on imitating Strother Martin from Cool Hand Luke. Nelsan Ellis shines as an ex-con conflicted by his spot on Zimbrano’s team, and Olivia Thirlby, as Zimbrano’s girlfriend, effectively provides a badly-needed conscience.
Alvarez, in just his third feature, turns the screws with a precision that leaves you shaken by events you already know are coming. Though seemingly more trivial, his subtle flair with the period details bathes the entire film in a stark authenticity from first frame to last.
Did an “evil place win over good people,” did the situation attract sociopaths waiting to strike, or was the execution too flawed for any conclusion? To its credit, The Stanford Prison Experiment offers no concrete judgements, just a gripping, sadly relevant look at ourselves.