Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby
Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez (“C.O.G.”)
Written by: Tim Talbott (debut)
In 1971, psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo conducted one of the most controversial psychological experiments in history. Bringing together a group of student volunteers to play both guards and prisoners, Zimbardo’s intentions were to simulate a prison environment and study the abusive behaviors within the prison system. What happened, however, was that everyone, including Zimbardo himself, become entrenched and absorbed into their roles and psychological degradation, humiliation, and empowerment began. Almost 45 years later, these events are brought to the big screen in Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment.”
The cast is a veritable who’s who of young actors who have been in minor, but effective roles. Actors like Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller and Johnny Simmons are among a few of the actors who are great in their roles as prisoners. As each of the prisoners slowly unravel under the pressure from the guards, each actor gets to add more and more nuance and dramatic ability to their performance. On the guard side of things, Michael Angarano plays the sternest guard who takes satisfaction out of antagonizing everyone. At first as a joke, Angarano’s Christopher Archer invents an accent and swagger. As things progress, he starts to become this character and Angarano’s performance starts to get over the top. It is intentional and even necessary to show how far the guards, especially Archer, took it, but Angarano ends up feeling way too cartoonish to take seriously.
There’s a sense of real tension and discomfort that flows through “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” The film is at its best showing an unflinching portrayal of normal people who knew they only in an experiment becoming influenced, swept up in their designed roles and convinced that what they were experiencing was real. Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup in the film) himself served as a consultant on the film and most of the conversations are lifted from actual transcripts from the experiment itself, which adds to the unease. One of the most effective things about “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is how Alvarez perfectly captures how good-natured and amusing the experiment seemed at first and how it turned on a dime. As a study of human behavior, it’s fascinating to watch the turn of simulation blending into reality and the effects on the psyche of everyone involved from the guards, to the prisoners, down to the designers of the experimenters themselves.
If there’s a complaint to be had, it is that the film could have used a little bit of condensing. Redundant scenes of abusive behavior are hammered a little too hard and a little tightening up in the editing bay could have made the film feel a lot shorter. Well-shot, designed and with a keen 70’s aesthetic, “The Stanford Prison Experiment” is a slickly made and accurate portrait of one of the most stunning social experiments ever done and will serve as a great conversation piece for psychology students and movie-goers alike.