Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez.
Written by: Tim Talbott.
Starring: Billy Crudup (Dr. Philip Zimbardo), Michael Angarano (Christopher Archer), Moises Arias (Anthony Carroll), Nicholas Braun (Karl Vandy), Gaius Charles (Paul Vogel), Keir Gilchrist (John Lovett), Ki Hong Lee (Gavin Lee / 4301), Thomas Mann (Prisoner 416), Ezra Miller (Daniel Culp / 8612), Logan Miller (Jerry Sherman / 5486), Tye Sheridan (Peter Mitchell / 819), Johnny Simmons (Jeff Jansen / 1037), James Wolk (Mike Penny), Nelsan Ellis (Jesse Fletcher), Olivia Thirlby (Dr. Christina Maslach).
I couldn’t help but think of another recent movie – Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter when I was watching The Stanford Prison Experiment. Both films are about infamous psychological experiments conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, and both deal with authority. Experimenter functions almost as a psychological experiment itself – one that Almereyda is conducting on the audience as they watch. The Stanford Prison Experiment doesn’t do that – it aims for a chilly, basic recounting of facts – a recreation of a simulation and its effective enough that my wife wondered if it was a documentary for a few minutes (then she saw Billy Crudup). Both films are effective – but Experimenter has another layer that raises it above this one, as good as it is.
The film stars the aforementioned Crudup as Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who in the early 1970s wanted to conduct an experiment at Stanford – and asked for young, male volunteers to participate. He turns a hallway and some offices into a prison ward – made half of the volunteer’s guards and the other half prisoners, and wanted to see how they would react. It was supposed to last two weeks, but was called off less than a week in. The experiment was too successful. The guards got too into their roles – and seemed to enjoy inflicting psychological torture on the prisoners, who in turn suffered from more psychological strain than anyone involved every would have thought possible. The guards keep pushing, and when they wonder if they have gone too far, Zimbardo assures them – tells them to keep going.
You know where the story is going from fairly early in the movie, even if you haven’t heard of the infamous experiment before. The early scenes have both the guards and prisoners behaving awkwardly, trying at times to stifle laughter as they try and fit into their roles. It doesn’t help them that the surroundings look like exactly what they are – an drab, boring, beige hallway in an institutional setting, and not like a prison at all. Which is what makes what is happens more disturbing – because everything that happens comes from within these young men.
To be honest, most of the performances kind of blend together – this was probably the goal of the experiment and the film, as all the prisoners dress alike, as do the guards, so individual personalities do not much come out. Two performances do stand out though – the first by Michael Angarano, as the leader of the guards, who adopts a strange speaking voice – somewhere between Captain from Cool Hand Luke and John Wayne – and is the one who ratchets up the abuse on the prisoners, delighting in his own sadistic streak of punishing them. The other is by Ezra Miller as the most rebellious of the prisoners – and not coincidentally, the first one who breaks. When he realizes he cannot win, he loses it.
The film is effective directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez – who is clearly inspired by Kubrick with his camera moves, and icy tone (oddly, the film won the screenplay prize at Sundance, when the screenplay really doesn’t seem that impressive – it’s the direction and the performances that sell it). The film does start to drab as it moves along – we know where this is headed, and the film starts to repeat itself, with only slightly worse results from the prisoners. The film is effective – surprisingly so – because it limits its scope – because it doesn’t venture too far from that hallway. But that also limits it a little – making the whole thing feel slightly oppressive. Then again, perhaps that’s the point.