The Stanford Prison Experiment, 2015.
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
Starring Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann, and Olivia Thirlby.
Twenty-four male students out of seventy-five were selected to take on randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situated in the basement of the Stanford psychology building.
The only thing separating prisoner from guard was a heads or tails flip of a coin; probably the most alluring detail in regards to how The Stanford Prison Experiment played out. It’s a harrowing study in what temporary power coupled with no repercussions could do to the psyche of average citizens, but most importantly everyday people with good intentions in the real world that seemingly could never harm another fellow human being. By the end of the movie, the most startling aspect is that none of the subjects were diagnosed with long-term psychological effects, but rather got caught up in the moment of the mock prison set-up decked out in Stanford University’s basement.
There is a juxtaposition between the context of control for prisoner and guard shining through exceptionally with two performances; a scenery chewing correctional officer (Michael Angarano) and #8612 (Ezra Miller), and it’s a dynamic that will be one of the focal points of discussion among a crowd after the film. Some characters break because they have no authority, while others break out of pure, unbridled fear. The dehumanizing proceedings all throughout the film also make its finale all the more powerful.
Again, it all comes back to one fascinating variable; the actions of these citizens turned role-players came down to a flip of a coin. One could conduct this experiment over and over, presumably with different results every time, but would it always break down into chaos? Maybe, maybe not. The Stanford Prison Experiment does express the horrifying truth that we do not know what we are capable of until we are given the tools to turn into everything we assumed we could not be.
As a psychological study, it is extremely evident that The Stanford Prison Experiment leaves one hell of a lasting impression alongside a discussion that will never grow tiring, but it is also superbly directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Featuring a color palette of mostly white and brown, the University also has boarded up walls, emptiness, and a strong sense of claustrophobia (most notably when resistant prisoners are placed in a pitch black closet, nicknamed The Hole, as punishment). Cinematography is also on-point employing a healthy dosage of tracking shots, quick cuts, and facial zooms that while stylish, keep up the cold atmosphere.
Even though Michael Angarano will be the fan favorite/ breakout revelation (as brutalizing as this movie is to watch, his performance is just as much fun as it is terrifying) the cast of mostly untested young actors and indie darlings often make the most of every scene. With the exception of Tye Sheridan, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, and Billy Crudup (portraying Dr. Philip Zimbardo, the real-life psychologist that founded this experiment), there is very little name recognition here which actually strengthens the drama behind the performances. We aren’t familiar with these actors, allowing us to more closely focus on the experiment unfolding instead of marking out for overexposed Hollywood actor X bringing prolific starpower to the movie.
The only real flaw with The Stanford Prison Experiment is that neither the prisoners nor guards are really defined as characters. We don’t really know enough about the guards to understand what triggers them to treat the experiment too real for comfort, but that’s also probably the point. If you want to truly test the character of a man, give him power. Still, it would have been nice to get a better feel for the characters even at the expense of stretching a two-hour movie into a three-hour movie.
If anything, it’s the story of Dr. Philip Zimbardo, whose morality was tested as he became a subject of the very experiment he was conducting. This also leads to a fairly dehumanizing climax, resulting in the termination of the experiment. Even better is the disparity between the reactions for prisoners and guards post-cancellation, which borders on hysterical dark humor.
There really is no other way to put it; The Stanford Prison Experiment is a transfixing, profoundly insightful examination of how without even knowing it, anyone of us could morph into the terrible guards drunk on power. The torture, both psychological and physical, is hurtful to watch as we empathize with the prisoners every step of the way. The scariest part is that viewers vicariously become Dr. Philip Zimbardo, hotly anticipating what happens next before coming to their senses realizing how inhumane this is, how far it has gone, and that it needs to stop.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder – An aficionado of film, wrestling, and gaming. Follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook