The Stanford Prison Experiment
A nightmarish look into an experiment gone wrong, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” would be an easy film to dismiss as sensationalist tripe…if it hadn’t happened. In real life.
Yes, this experiment occurred in 1971, as researcher Philip Zimbardo (played in the movie by Billy Crudup) conducted an experiment in which 24 college students were placed into a simulated prison environment on campus. Some of the students played prisoners, others played guards.
The experiment went awry (or did it?) when the “guards” became drunk on power and began denying the “prisoners” privileges, referred to them only by their “prison number,” and soon resorted to striking them and subjecting them to physical and mental torture to get them to comply with rules.
When the “prisoners” go to Zimbardo to complain, they’re given the brushoff, have their masculinity questioned and are sent back into the slam.
The film plays it straight in depicting the rank madness that occurred, going more for accuracy than sensationalism when it would have been easy to play up the more prurient aspects of the case (in part at least because the factual subject matter is prurient enough).
Director Kyle Alvarez does a tremendous job both in the narrative and in casting the roles, choosing actors with chops that are well-known without giving in to the temptation to cast big names. Michael Angarano (“Almost Famous”), Ezra Miller (the upcoming movie based on “The Flash”), Tye Sheridan (“Mud”), and Johnny Simmons (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”) play fitting victims of the crime, gleefully volunteering to be prisoners at the initial interview, only to regret that decision once the experiment begins.
Crudup has a haughtiness that serves the Zimbardo character well, as he becomes enamored by the experiment and loses sight of the people in it. As the guards begin their slide to tyranny over the prisoners, Zimbardo joins with the guards, attempting to block a subject as he tries to quit the experiment, then fearing an uprising when he promises to return to free his fellow “prisoners,” so much so that he moves the experiment to another floor.
In the end, not only did the students go along with this setup, but so too did the instructors, and even the boys’ families, illustrated in a fantastic scene where the parents of one inmate question Zimbardo about their son’s poor treatment and end up apologizing to him for even asking the question.
This is a fascinating, gripping film, and by releasing it in late summer the studio no doubt hopes to find a little counterprogramming traction. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is the kind of film that real cinephiles love, with a tremendous moral argument to be made, a look under the hood of human nature to see the seedy underbelly.
As for the real experiment, researchers to this day are trying to find out what it all means. Is it a look at the consequences of giving one group unfettered power over another? Does it illustrate the effects of subjugation of a segment of society, or does it betray a dark side to the personalities of virtually everyone and a lesson that any of us can fall victim to our own impulses and descend into cruelty and violence?
After viewing “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” I think the answer is all three. And much more.