The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) Film Review from the 37th Annual Sundance Film Festival, a movie directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, starring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, and Olivia Thirlby.
It’s hard to believe that a faithful portrayal of psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment hasn’t been produced until now. True, it has been depicted on film before (most notably the German-made Das Experiment in 2001 and its American remake, The Experiment, in 2010) – but those portrayals took extreme liberties with the truth and were highly-stylistic and overly-sensationalized (and, to be honest, were quite unfortunate). Finally, The Stanford Prison Experiment brings us the first true reflection of the actual experiment as it took place in 1971.
For those unfamiliar with this story, eighteen college students (all males) were selected to participate in a study commissioned by the U.S. military at California’s Stanford University, where a makeshift prison was built in the basement of the university’s psychology building – complete with cameras to record the events that would unfold. The experiment was to last two weeks; nine students were randomly selected to play the role of prison guards while the other nine were randomly assigned the role of prisoners.
Suffice it to say, things quickly spiraled out of control and the experiment lasted only six days – with two prisoners threatening legal action and bowing out early.
The film is downright frightening, with an ever-present sense of dread hanging over the proceedings. This is surprising, as the experiment is, in many ways, just flat-out absurd, and might provoke laughter if it weren’t for the quick initiation of the prisoners – and the viewers. With a relentless, pounding score and a pace that leaves little room to breathe, this film isn’t for the faint of heart.
For the prisoners, it’s not just degrading – it’s dehumanizing. The dark lighting accentuates the fact that nothing exists except for the hell they are living. Repeated verbal and physical abuse by the prison guards only becomes worse as the hours go by. Stripped of their dignity and of their names, they are known only by their prisoner number.
But the most truly gut-wrenching realization (out of many) comes with Zimbardo’s descent into madness, ultimately culminating in nothing short of his blessing of the abuse of his carefully-selected subjects. His dedication transforms not only into obsession but into certified pathology; the unreasonable demands he places on his team and his treatment of his subjects would be criminal in today’s day and age. It’s a humbling revelation for the audience: this is what we, as humans, are each capable of.
Packing an ensemble cast, this harrowing account features some of the most impressive turns from promising young actors (some of whom have already built an astonishing body of work) ever caught on film. As Prisoner 8612, the rebel of the group who seems to be the only one to realize the experiment is just pretend, is Ezra Miller. His phenomenal performance anchors much of the film and provides most of its emotional weight. His nemesis, the most brutal of the prison guards, is played to perfection by a twangy Michael Angarano, who exhibits a domineering power and cruelty familiar audiences wouldn’t have ever expected from him. They are complemented by admirable performances from Tye Sheridan, Logan Miller, and Nicholas Braun.
This is a film that ought to be shown in high schools and colleges across the country. Its parallels to the United States’ recent association with torture of prisoners render it highly-relevant and worthy of discussion. Indeed, this experiment led to the establishment of institutional review and ethics boards for modern-day experimentation, psychological or otherwise. It is a lesson we can all learn from and a sad sight to behold.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is screening at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and has yet to be acquired for distribution.
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Image Source: Sundance Institute