Smith’s Verdict: ***1/2
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
SPOILER WARNING (but this is based on a real study)
Imagine if you were placed in a situation where it was “you” versus “them.” What would you do? What would you say? What would you feel?
Some high-school or college psychology classes tend to teach about the Stanford Prison Experiment, which was an experiment ran by Dr. Philip Zimbardo in the early 1970s to investigate the cause of conflict between prisoners and guards by hiring 18 male Stanford students and dividing them up into one group or the other. A campus building basement was transformed into a makeshift prison and the guards took turns as three at a time kept the prisoners in order. It was supposed to last for two weeks, but due to the constant bullying to the point of psychological pain brought on by the guards, Zimbardo pulled the plug on the experiment after only six days. What did he want to prove? That the personalities of the guards and the prisoners tied with the brutality within prison settings? That people can and will change under pressure, given similar circumstances such as environment? Maybe both? Either way, it shouldn’t have happened in the first place, and he must’ve known it shouldn’t go on for another week. After only six days, it had already become violent and unpredictable; who knows what could’ve happened later?
The experiment has been the subject of many documentaries and a few narrative films (as well as term papers, for that matter), and with “The Stanford Prison Experiment,” director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and writer Tim Talbott’s fictional interpretation, based on Zimbardo’s book, “The Lucifer Effect,” may be the definitive narrative film about the subject, eyeing conflicts from both sides, the watchers (Zimbardo and his staff) and the watched (not just the prisoners but the guards as well), with a cold, objective tone. As a result, it’s chilling, shocking, and thought-provoking; one of the most disturbing films of the year.
It’s helped not only by the skillful filmmaking but also by the acting. Billy Crudup makes Zimbardo less than noble as an observer oddly compelled to keep going, despite himself becoming part of the experiment as well. Nelsan Ellis is strong in a role as an actual former prisoner who has some advice about the experiment and backs out when he becomes the very thing he hated for a long time. Olivia Thirlby shines in a brief but pivotal role as Zimbaro’s girlfriend who is appalled at what she sees. That leaves very impressive ensemble work from the many young actors playing prisoners and guards. Since they are not there to have characters of their own, only a few stand out—Michael Angarano, who is very chilling as a sadistic guard who takes influence from Strother Martin in “Cool Hand Luke”; Ezra Miller, who is heartbreaking as a prisoner who cracks as he realizes the authenticity of the experiment; Tye Sheridan, a rebellious prisoner; and Thomas Mann, a replacement prisoner who tries to cut through the “experiment.”
Alvarez and Talbott must have followed the source material closely, as we see almost exactly how the experiment gradually fell apart. There aren’t many clear answers, but the best thing about the film is how many questions it raises about human nature, as we ourselves interpret how the guards and prisoners acted certain ways because we can imagine how we would act in a similar situation. When I left the theater after I saw this film, I had a forty-minute drive home. The whole time I was driving, I kept imagining how I would behave if I was a guard or a prisoner. If I were a prisoner, would I be passive and take it or stand up for myself and fight back? If I were a guard, would I just do my duty or would I lose my head and get rough? I had to look deep within myself. That’s the effect “The Stanford Prison Experiment” had on me. It’s a film I won’t forget anytime soon. I hope to see it a second time with someone I could discuss it with to see what we both come up with in our conclusions.