Looking Back at 2010s Films: The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

1 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, one of the best double-features I ever had was in September 2015, when I took a little trip to the Riverdale 10 theater in Little Rock to see a couple indie films I was curious about–“The End of the Tour” (which I’ll get to later) and “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” I loved both films. “The Stanford Prison Experiment” was the last of the two, after which I drove a half-hour back home…and thought about it, long and hard. It haunted me for quite a while.

What would I do if I were part of the experiment? If I were a prisoner, would I obey? Would I rebel? Would I stick to it because it’s what I signed on for? Would I try anything possible to get out of it?

And what if I were a guard? Would I treat the prisoners fairly? Would I abuse them?

It’s so easy to say you’d never behave the way the people in the real-life Stanford Prison Experiment did. But that’s the point of the study (and this film)–you don’t know.

Ezra Miller’s character was a prisoner who tried to rebel and broke when he couldn’t hack it. Michael Angarano’s character was a guard who abused his authority. What would’ve happened if the roles were reversed? According to Dr. Zimbardo, who’s running the experiment, “The only thing that separates those two was a coin flip.” Is that entirely true? We don’t know.

Watching the film, I half-expected a full-blown prison riot that would’ve terminated the whole experiment. Hell, I even expected someone to DIE. (This is a case of me not knowing the true story of the experiment before seeing the film.) Instead, the damage is psychological.

And it is disturbing not only that the guards would let themselves go so far but that only a couple prisoners speak up and try to stop them. But that is a common case when people have trouble with authority–they don’t know WHAT to do.

What I also love about the film is that the people running the experiment each have different opinions on where they think the study is headed. Sometimes, when characters analyze the situation at hand, I wonder if they’re as interesting as discussions moviegoers would have after seeing the film. Here, I’m hanging on to every word, because I’m invested. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Who’s to say?

And of course, what aids the material is a really strong ensemble cast–Billy Crudup, Nelsan Ellis, Olivia Thirlby, James Wolk, Michael Angarano, Ezra Miller, and over a dozen talented young actors who were either already well-established in their careers or up-and-coming in the field. (Call it the Dazed-and-Confused Effect.) Add that to the effectively simplistic filmmaking, and this one’s a winner.

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