Justin Kurzel adapts Peter Carey's groundbreaking novel into a stunningly queer deconstruction of masculinity and nationalism.
Berlinger's Bundy biopic doesn't glorify the killer. Instead it dissects him, as well as the events surrounding his trial(s).
LORDS OF CHAOS tells the true story of Norwegian black metal band Mayhem and the tragic consequences of their dangerous art
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
David Mackenzie's tale of Robert the Bruce avoids the myths, focusing on the fierce man of flesh and blood.
MY FRIEND DAHMER is a poignant, unnerving, and even empathetic portrayal of Jeffrey Dahmer in the year or so leading up to his first murder.
Jeremy Renner brings to life one of the most heinous murderers of the modern era in this horrific biopic.
Bronson. 2008. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Brock Norman Brock & Refn.
Starring Tom Hardy, Matt King, James Lance, Amanda Burton, Kelly Adams, Juliet Oldfield, Jonathan Phillips, Mark Powley, Hugh Ross, Joe Tucker, Gordon Brown, & Charlie Whyman. Str8jacket Creations/Vertigo Films/Aramid Entertainment Fund.
Rated 14A. 92 minutes.
Time and again I say it: Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the directors working today whose mix of influences bleed into his talent in the perfect shade, making him a passionate artist forging his own path while still showing love for those who came before him, and above everything an uncompromising auteur. Lots of so called fans only came on after Drive became a big, unexpected hit. It’s a great flick. Not his best, though, despite being so awesome. There are a bunch of other amazing pieces of cinema that came before it, such as the Pusher trilogy, Bleeder, Fear X, and certainly this whopper of arthouse film, Bronson.
What’s lovely about Refn is that, though his style is singular and always apparent each of his movies takes on a vastly different type of world and story. That makes his electronic-score driven, gorgeously framed, dark style almost perfectly suited for the story of the world’s most infamous prisoner, Charles Bronson (Tom Hardy) a.k.a Michael Gordon Peterson. This is a true story. Well, sort of. Refn is able to provide the surrealist atmosphere for the plot to play out in the right sense. We’re never quite sure if what’s occurring in front of our eyes is truthful, a part of Bronson’s built up and enhanced self image, or if Charlie’s actually full-on mad. The screenplay from Refn and Brock Norman Brock lets us escape into the mind of a man who defines ‘product of the system’ in a way that’s never before been allowed with other prison films. And for all Refn’s excellency as director, Bronson is so effective due to the tornado force performance out of Hardy. He is a revelation and one worthy of every bit of hype the media gives him. Hardy and Refn together with the foundation of a character like Bronson, an unbelievably real man, makes for one of my favourite films post-2000.
Something I love about this story is what Roger Ebert echoed in his review of the film. The fact Refn and Brock make no attempts to explain away the behaviour of Bronson is exactly what makes the movie enjoyable. At his core, Peterson – who took the name Charlie Bronson as a fighting name – is a horrid sort. You can’t always use that label I previously mentioned, product of the system, as a way to rationalise the actions of bad people. Sure, Peterson was likely changed into who he ultimately became because of his incarceration and the time he spent institutionalised. However, I truly feel that in his heart Peterson has the seed of evil. Maybe not full-on evil, but certainly of badness. He’s not a relentless murderer. Yet a dangerous individual no less. His incessant fighting and rage is a plague, on him, as well as more importantly on everyone around him. So I find there’s a fine line drawn between making an excuse for someone who’s a ward of the system, essentially, and someone who could very well just have on real conscience or concern for growing as a person, other than in the sense of physical growth in order to be the best fighter possible.
In turn, Hardy makes the central performance vibe well with the intentions of the overall story and its themes. He gets the character right in terms of the swagger, the mentality and the outright madness. He is physically intimidating, he’s also funny and charming in a brash way. There’s a ton of different feelings you get about Charlie throughout the runtime of the movie, and Hardy is always pushing you. There are moments you don’t think you’re meant to laugh, but you do. There are moments that you’re not sure if fear is the appropriate response; it is, very much. And most of that is Hardy bending the screenplay to his will. Making the character memorable and fierce. There’s not a single shot where Hardy isn’t making you think or compelling you further into the personality of Bronson. Whether that’s a good thing, you be the judge.
Another aspect that’s interesting to me is the idea of celebrity and persona. Peterson becoming the alter-ego of Charles Bronson is the first shift in his identity where we see that he’s to become a celebrity. Or more so that he’s to become famous, or infamous is the best way to describe it. The surrealism of the script, jumping from one mad scene to the next, is what brings everything out, as the larger than life persona is represented admirably via the stage play moments. As Bronson recounts to us his life he becomes the circus ring leader, the lead performer – at once he’s the star of the show, the next he’s a different character with lipstick and manicured nails and drawn on hair to boot.
These scenes allow us to look into the confused identity that is Bronson, the man formerly known as Michael Peterson. “You can‘t tie that up in a nice little pink bow,” an art instructor tells Charlie about the picture he’s drawing, a perfectly poignant commentary on the man himself: “Nah you can‘t pin me down, mate,” replies Bronson. Best of all, those stage play scenes give us a window into the soul of Charlie, as we fully understand how lonely the man is and what drives him: he needs, and wants, an audience. After so much time alone stuck in cells and having only time inside his own head, that stage is both an escape from this life, and it’s also a cry for help, the want for an audience. Maybe that’s all he ever needed; not incarceration, but rather attention, care, kindness. We’ll never know, though, and this is part of why I love the film. Refn gives us plenty upon which to ruminate. He never proposes any answers, nor does he make it seem like that’s his aim. His objective here is to fall into the headspace of the truly veritable headcase that is Charlie Bronson.
This one is at the top of my Refn list. I’m a fan of every last bit of his work. He is a very interesting director and writer. His style is tons of fun, it is vibrant and always compels you to keep you watching, if only to figure out what’s about to happen next, and how it’s going to be expressed. Bronson is one of his more surreal efforts, in line at times visually with Valhalla Rising in its strange beauty. Tom Hardy can get into the skin of any character. He relishes every moment as Bronson, putting his heart and soul and limbs into each scene. Not many actors are willing to get naked and pain themselves, have their ass greased with butter (and by another man), to fully commit themselves to the insanity of a role such as that of Charlie; Tom is one of those few actors that can go to the lengths required. There are many times you’ll wonder where exactly the plot is moving. Let’s just say it never goes far. But not every story has a plot that moves in the typical fashion from Point A to B to C through to a nicely wrapped finale. Bronson is a series of scenes that accurately depict the loneliness, brutality, and all around uncontrollable personality of a man you’d never in a million years believe to be real, if he weren’t so well known. Along the way you’ll laugh, you will cringe. All appropriate reactions. This is a character study which pulls you along on the tails of music (from the atypical Refn electronics to popular classical pieces) and violence featuring one of the greatest performances you’re likely to ever witness.
Malcolm X. 1992. Directed by Spike Lee. Screenplay by Lee & Arnold Perl.
Starring Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Albert Hall, Al Freeman Jr., Delroy Lindo, Spike Lee, Theresa Randle, Kate Vernon, Lonette MCKee, Tommy Hollis, James McDaniel, Ernest Thomas, Jean-Claude La Marre, O.L. Duke, & Larry McCoy. 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks/Largo International N.V./JCV Entertainment Networks/Warner Bros.
Rated PG-13. 202 minutes.
Sometimes I’m not a fan of Spike Lee as a public persona, simply because he doesn’t always think before speaking. However, I’m usually a fan of his work as a director. He has a big, wide mind and puts that to work usually tackling issues within the African American community. There are too many of his movies to talk of in an introduction, but suffice to say I do think he is a great director. One of the greatest in his generation, and certainly one of the best African American directors out there, period.
And that’s perhaps why Malcolm X is the film out of his catalogue which resonates most. It isn’t necessarily his greatest. Yet there’s such a poignancy and depth to the work Lee does to portray Malcolm X (played wonderfully by Denzel Washington), not just as a powerful black leader, but also as a human being; one not completely above judgement, one not perfect as some might idealise him. Furthermore, we’re able to get a look at the inside of the Nation of Islam, as far as fiction allows. Many prominent figures in the life of X and circling the NOI, as well as the Civil Rights movement in general, are included, from cameo roles such as Nelson Mandela, Al Sharpton and others, to the portrayals of characters like Elijah Muhammad (Al Freeman Jr.) and Thomas Hagan (Giancarlo Esposito), among more. The nearly three and a half hour runtime of Malcolm X may seem daunting. If you’re sitting down to watch a film, you’ve really got to be prepared for this one, though it’s beyond worth the effort. For me, the 202 minutes rushes by in a beautifully shot and directed, phenomenally acted story that jams a whole man’s life into one screenplay. Not everything gets covered, and there’s also plenty of story to be told after X’s assassination. Above all else, the character of X comes out, as does his struggle. For some this was a stepping stone to learning more about the Civil Rights movements that began raging during the 1960s and 1970s, and onward. I won’t ever forget my first time seeing this one. It’s a classic that stands the test of time, telling an important, crucial story about America during the early latter half of the 20th century, and examining one of the more turbulent times of race relations in the country’s history. Sadly, some of what happened back then is still much too alive and much too well in American society, and if X were still alive he’d likely still be as fiery and determined as ever.
The best aspect of Malcolm X is the fact Lee doesn’t attempt to make him above reproach. As a person, X was not perfect. Nobody is, so Lee never tries to make him out to be anything else. Some worried that he would include X’s life before he converted to Islam, and that’s exactly part of what makes this story interesting and intriguing. There’s no sense in ignoring that part of his existence. X himself never did ignore it, he always kept himself open and honest and raw. That’s a huge part of why many did, and still do(/always will), admire him. He was not like most other leaders. He didn’t admit every one of his faults – again, he is only human. But on the whole, he never shied away from his once criminal past, as that in a way led him to where he went after and helped him attain the enlightenment of Islam.
One of my favourite moments happens between Malcolm X’s speeches. A young white woman approaches him, admiring his work, and wondering what a white person without prejudice might do to help further his cause: “Nothing,” he says smiling before walking on. This is such a brief, powerful moment. I’m reminded of watching a recent documentary about the KKK, where they also spotlighted the Black Lives Matter movement and the shooting in Charleston; one scene shows a white woman, with a mixed race child, trying to march in solidarity, who’s told by a black woman to go home – she does in fact leave after, though the black lady gives her a hug and seemingly explains this is just not the time or place for her presence. There’s a stand-off element to X and his feelings for white people. Again, that changed once he went to Mecca on his Hajj, and then essentially transformed into a full blown humanitarian. Yet Lee never strays away from that inflammatory perspective X held towards white American society, and makes clear it’s simply about black people gaining back their power, or retaining what they have, not so much about hating white people. So in that scene where X shrugs the white woman off, it represents the idea that white people may want to help, but black people don’t need their help. They sometimes just need white people to stand back, let them do their thing and settle the issues on their own. That’s not always the case. Particularly in the time of X, there were tough things happening (not that there still aren’t in this day and age), so this was a stance he felt black society needed to take in those times of near racial war. Not long after X, once Elijah Muhammad was out of his life, he made clear the black community had to unite first, then they could work more on white-black relations. That scene with the white girl epitomises this concept.
I love the inclusion of the conk hairstyle at the beginning with Malcolm and his buddy Shorty. Not simply because African American culture at the time saw a lot of young black men styling their hair that way. What’s most interesting is that Malcolm X later spoke about conk and its double edged sword-like effect on the black community. On the one hand, conk – because of its threat of chemical burns and scarring, hair loss, et cetera – was seen as a ritual of manhood, going from a boy to a grown adult. On the other hand, he and other African American scholars came to see conk also as a way of erasing oneself in order to become more white. This latter idea is presented in the screenplay after the conk is put in, washed out, then Malcolm admires his new hair in the mirror and says to the men in the barbershop: “Looks white, don‘t it?” The whole concept of the conk plays into how we see Malcolm ultimately reject everything white. And yes, he said incredibly inflammatory things about white people. But things can change, people can. He didn’t turn into who he was later because of a hate for white people. Effectively, he hated injustice. The white man, the white culture, the white HAIR, it all comes down to representing the white world that he lived in and found himself subject to at every turn, on a daily, minute-to-minute basis. So the conk is simply one element of the white superstructure that Malcolm came to reject. A great inclusion on Lee’s part to show that. It could’ve been a basic scene that shows us where he came from, his beginnings. Instead the scene represents a microcosm of that influence white culture had (/still has) on black people that are brainwashed into feeling as if ‘white is right’ or any of that other sadness. Later when Malcolm is in jail, the conk becomes a sticking point when he’s confronted by an inmate who tries to help him, out of the life of a gangster and moving towards something better, which is the Nation of Islam; a huge influence in his life during prison, as well as afterwards. It may seem a superficial, brief moment in the 202 minute runtime of this epic biography. And it’s a drop in the pond, really. Although, it is highly significant to the overall themes surrounding the film and X himself as a Civil Rights leader.
This is one of the best movies of the 1990s, certainly one of Spike Lee’s best, too. Malcolm X is a dissection of a cult of personality. It is a film that attempts to get to the core of what X and his struggle represented. Without all the denial some insist on upholding in regards to X’s personal history, who he was, who he became. The movie is not totally perfect, though it is perfect where it counts. Likewise, Lee concentrates on not inflating X as a leader. Rather he takes an inclusive look at the man, not ignoring the good and the bad alike. He dives into the an era where things were different, and somehow not enough has changed as of this writing in 2016. Watching this movie again now, 24 years after its release and concerning a subject decades older, it’s almost sad to watch and think how hard X would roll over in his grave were he able to witness some of the scary racist madness that’s still going on in the streets of America. Love this movie, love Denzel, and Spike is near his best here. A positively entertaining piece of biography, history, all combining to make a well executed film in every respect.
A Dangerous Method. 2011. Directed by David Cronenberg. Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play The Talking Cure.
Starring Keira Knightley, Viggo Mortensen, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Gadon, & Vincent Cassel. Telefilm Canada/Ontario Media Development Corporation/Corus Entertainment/eOne Films.
Rated 14A. 99 minutes.
I’ll say it loud and proud ’till the day I die: I am one of David Cronenberg’s biggest fans.
His films are incredible slices of human life twisted around the innovations of everything from technology to media to psychology, as well as all sorts of other themes and topics. While his earlier work is dominated mostly by the physiological, over the past decade or so Cronenberg has kept his eeriness as he’s moved towards examining aspects of the mind. Cronenberg first moved slightly from body horror in 2002 with the Ralph Fiennes-starring Spider, which examined the fractured mind of the titular character through years of psychological torment. Then came A History of Violence and Eastern Promises, both taking a look at the fluid identities of dangerous men involved in the world of organized crime.
But if the second act of Cronenberg’s career has shifted focus more towards psychology then the granddaddy of them all is A Dangerous Method.
Via screenplay written by Christopher Hampton – based on his own play The Talking Cure, which is also based on the book A Dangerous Method: The Story of Jung, Freud, and Sabina Spielrein – the audience is transported into the relationship between groundbreaking psychiatrists Drs. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, along with the presence of Sabina Spielrein, who went on to become one of the world’s first female psychoanalysts. The style Cronenberg brings here is his typically great eye for framing and an overall gift of storytelling. But more than that he takes his talents in the arena of body horror and manages to make the psychologically uneasy aspects of this story all the more affecting.
A few reviews I remember seeing when this was first released accused Knightley’s performance of being hammy, over-the-top, among other suggested negatives. There’s no way I can agree. In the initial scenes you can grasp the incredible emotional trauma of Sabina, as Knightley dives directly into this woman’s skin. It is a fearless performance from the top. Sabina was a hysteric, and that is how many of them are prone to behaving. Although her accent doesn’t always hit the perfect mark, her overall performance is solid. Her energy as an actress has always been good. Never more formidable than here.
The chemistry between Knightley and Fassbender is fiery, too. For his part, he brings Jung to the screen with an odd charm, one which slowly evaporates over the course of the film. At first he seems a proper man whose interests lie solely in psychiatry, unearthing new practices and honing old ones to modern methodologies and more modern issues/illnesses. Partway through there’s a gradual realization Jung is as repressed, if not more so in some ways, than some of the patients he treats. Through Fassbender we find Jung’s human side and also his hideous one. He seeps talent in every film in which he stars, this is no exception.
Finally, it’s the even more amazing chemistry between Fassbender and Mortensen that makes this film so engaging. Mortensen has a good look for Freud, as well as the fact he captures the air of the men well, right down to little details such as the constant cigar smoking, the pensive and animated conversation, his calm demeanour and way of speaking. He and Fassbender play well off one another – the former with a highly serious tone and set of mannerisms, the other a slightly more loose and freewheeling type. Together, as the tension rises from one conversation to the next, their performances reel us into a psychoanalytic world of ego, jealousy, competition. And their subtle touches as actors, along with the well written screenplay, gives them the ability to work without melodrama. These two together offer nothing but the best.
Jung: “Only the wounded physician can hope to heal”
Part of Jung’s resentment of Freud is that the latter seems to have no problem with sex. Maybe he’s not a ladies man either, yet he willingly dives headlong into sexuality as the root of just about every problem we as humans experience. Meanwhile, it is clear Jung had hangups, which emerged vividly in his relationship with Sabina. So Jung likely thought Freud’s preoccupation and fixation on sex was ill conceived simply because of his own desire to break free sexually, a.k.a cheat on his wife.
One major reason I love A Dangerous Method is because it takes a long, hard, raw look at people who are widely regarded as geniuses in the field of psychiatry. Of course anyone in the know realized Freud was into cocaine, as well as other bits and pieces of both his and Jung’s life. However, exposing the darkness underneath all the masterful work is something intriguing. In that way, Cronenberg further digs into the mind: the collective mind. As we try to believe doctors and other figures of such authority are often better than ourselves, we often forget they are simply human.
The conversations between Freud and Jung are wonderful, in acting and writing. Tension mounts as their opposing views bump up against one another, rubbing each other raw. Every conversation seems to get a little more anxious, each one has more attitude – often from Freud – and the relationship between these two great thinkers deteriorates, almost invisible to their own eyes as it’s happening. Then all of a sudden they’ve grown miles apart during the interim. The progression and downfall of their relationship is certainly precipitated by the affair Jung engages in with Sabina. But the inflated egos of both Freud and Jung lay the foundation for a breeding ground of contempt between them, an inescapable and unavoidable rift.
There are absolutely some flaws to this movie. The fact remains A Dangerous Method is a complex and interesting piece of cinema facilitated by the prodding mind of David Cronenberg. Without a focus on body horror, he puts a tight lens on the horrors of psychology. The dangerous method in question lays waste to the mental capacities and thought processes of Carl Jung, as it also taints Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein. The famous Talking Cure is of course a great thing, one that’s given birth to what we know today as therapy, couples counselling, and so much more.
At the same time, the Talking Cure can lead to dangerous things if not taken by the reins. Someone like Jung, particularly in his affair and resulting mess involving Sabina, talked too much, and perhaps needed his own therapy while falling under the influence of first Freud, then Sabina in her own way, even Otto Gross and his ruminations on the uselessness of monogamy
This true story about the burgeoning days of modern psychiatry and psychoanalysis is a 4-star film with a trio of fabulous performances, the ultimate driving force behind its impact. Great directing, great acting, and a solid screenplay. If you have an interest in the topics at hand, check this out, but either way it is still a nice, interesting work of historical drama that gives us insight into the towering figures of Freud and Jung now that the past few decades have pulled further back the curtain on their personalities and personal lives.
Chopper. 2000. Directed & Written by Andrew Dominik; based on the books of Mark Brandon Read.
Starring Eric Bana, Simon Lyndon, David Field, Dan Wyllie, Bill Young, Vince Colosimo, Kenny Graham, Kate Beahan, Serge Liistro, Pam Western, Gary Waddell, Brian Mannix, Skye Wansey, Annalise Emtsis, & Johnnie Targhan. Australian Film Finance Corporation/Mushroom Pictures/Pariah Entertainment Group.
Unrated. 94 minutes.
Many true stories are often a rosy-eyed view of the life of their subjects. Too often they devolve into hero worship or over sentimentality. Really, what a good biography deserves is truth. Even if that truth has many sides.
Chopper is a film about infamous Australian criminal, prisoner, author, vigilante, Mark Brandon Read – a.k.a “Chopper” Read. The tagline NEVER LET THE TRUTH GET IN THE WAY OF A GOOD YARN is one of his personal mantras. So, how can a story about a notorious liar find truth? In its depiction of the central character, whose mantra on truth is a huge focus. Using bits of truth and bits of who-knows-if-its-fiction from Chopper himself, director-writer Andrew Dominik explores an interesting chapter of Mark Read’s life, as Eric Bana crawls into the man’s skin, bringing to life his odd habits, his paranoid mind, and his utterly hypnotic foolishness. It’s hard not to like Chopper at times because he’s a vigilante, he likes to prey on criminals. But he is a paradox – a criminal, a murderer, a pathological liar.
Is Chopper Read a good or a bad man? Is he a product of a nasty environment? You be the judge.
A product of the Australian penal system since the age of 16, Mark Brandon “Chopper” Read (Eric Bana) does a bid in jail for having kidnapped a Supreme Court judge, in order to try getting his old friend Jimmy Loughnan (Simon Lyndon) out of Pentridge Prison. Inside, serving in the notoriously well-known H-Division, Chopper kills off a big time criminal in the hopes of climbing the ranks. Instead of that happening, Chopper finds everyone turns on him. Even Jimmy tries stabbing him, unsuccessfully. With too many enemies after him Chopper has the tops of his ears cut off by another inmate, which gains him notoriety and also a transfer out of H-Division. In 1986, he’s released back unto the world.
Problem is life moves on. But ole Chop, he’s still living inside even on the outside. He’s paranoid, unable to figure out the line between enemy and friend. And soon, the delusional truths in Chop’s head start to work their way into the real world. Then the line between friend and enemy is no longer of importance because there’s no line anymore to separate dreams and reality.
But a few fibs never stopped Chop from telling a good tale, did it?
First and foremost, Chopper is about appearances; both the film and the man. Everything about Chopper is legit, in terms of his tough guy appeal. At the same time he continually feels the need to pump himself up, one way or another. When he shoots a previous victim after getting out of jail, he brings the guy to hospital, yet then denies it to everyone else who asks. Really, Chop? Well, that’s because he has a specific idea of what and who Mark “Chopper” Read should be to the world. So what’s interesting is how director-writer Dominik decides to tackle the many stories, many of which are true, that Chopper has blown up into half-truths and half-fabrications. We go back through events at a couple points, seeing things as they really are, then through Chop’s eyes – often turned into a more elaborate, more exciting version of events. Because that’s another big aspect of the film, and of the man’s life: Chopper was always, above all else, a storyteller. And this is incredibly clear at the end. Without spoiling the plot and the finale, you can see how Chopper thrives off the social nature of his hardness, of his crazy reputation, because after he’s left all alone, nobody to talk/brag to, Chopper becomes a silent man, full of solitude, and there’s nobody there any longer to listen to his ramblings and his inflated ego.
I often say that a certain performance is great because an actor was the only one capable of playing the role. When I say that here, in the case of Eric Bana as Mark Read it is the truest I’ve ever felt about that sentiment. No surprise even Read himself suggested Bana for the part. Because he fits the bill. It is a real transformation, especially for those who know Bana in recent years for his performances. He gained weight, rocked the fake tattoos and the goatee, beefs up his natural Australian accent into a more lower class sounding dialect. Then there’s simply the fact he strikes me as genuinely loony. Bana gets right into the skin of Chopper Read; the bravado, the paranoia, the odd sense of humour. You’ll find it hard pressed to even take your eyes off him for a second. The raw magnetism of his character leaks from every last scene. He’ll make you laugh, he’ll also make you uncomfortable, a bit frightened at times. And you will constantly be unsure of what’s to come next. Read’s volatile essence is in good hands with Bana, giving him a human side even under all the machismo and ego.
Hands down one of my favourite biographies, ever. Nearly a perfect film, as it takes us inside such an enigmatic persona with both style and substance. Lead by an absolutely captivating performance from Eric Bana, giving us chuckles and chills, Chopper is at times horrific, others hilarious, and always it has the ability to hold your attention. Its little quirks are the best, from a scene depicting the subtle effects of speed to the moment where Chop casually hangs a bit of dong for a woman in the bar. See this if you haven’t yet, and make it a priority if you’re a big Bana fan because this is truly the performance which put him on, and will keep him on, the map. Plus, who doesn’t love a bit of true crime? As true as it can get when concerning Mr. Read.
The Stanford Prison Experiment. 2015. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez. Screenplay by Tim Talbott.
Starring Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, Gaius Charles, Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, James Wolk, Nelsan Ellis, and Olivia Thirlby. Coup d’Etat Films/Sandbar Pictures/Abandon Pictures.
Rated 14A. 122 minutes.
There’ve been two other films based on the real Stanford Prison Experiment conducted by Philip Zimbardo, at least that I know of – the German film Das Experiment and the semi-remake of that starring Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker, The Experiment. Many will tell you the former is the best. Certainly none will say the latter. But I’ll go ahead and give you my opinion: The Stanford Prison Experiment is the best of the trio. It is the most raw, real, honest version compared with true events. It showcases best the real results of the experiment Zimbardo setup. Here, we see the worst of the human condition, what people are capable of given power and the ability to judge as they see fit.
As opposed to the other two films, Kyle Patrick Alvarez doesn’t try to add anything extra to the story. Or better put, screenwriter Tim Talbott sticks mostly to the practical facts of the original experiment. Instead of getting too flowery, attempting to intensify themes, Talbott’s script brings out the moral dilemmas inherent in Zimbardo’s supposed experiment. We are thrown directly in the hot seat, both with the people behind the glass and the inmates on the other side. This film focuses best on the human aspect of what really happened, rather than ratcheting up the violence, the threat of rape, or any number of things. Not saying every last bit of this is completely factual. More that it attempts to stick with reality. And things get very raw. For someone who traffics in a lot of horror, many disturbing pieces of cinema, this can actually be tough to watch; it isn’t even graphic. The psychological torture of the men in this experiment bleeds through the screen.
Dr. Philip Zombardo (Billy Crudup) conducts an experiment at Stanford University in the early 1970s. Twenty four men were recruited. They were broken into groups of guards and prisoners. This experiment sees how both groups act under the guidelines of a prison environment in the basement of the university.
Except things start to get a little out of hand. The guards aren’t allowed to physically hurt the prisoners. But they do everything else possible. They psychologically torture the young men playing prisoners. Some of them rebel. Others comply completely. Allowed to leave at any time, a couple do, or at least try to. For Zombardo’s part he tries to keep people there, going beyond acceptable limits; certainly beyond ethical scientific limits. As some of the guards go a little wilder than others, the Stanford Prison Experiment gets further out of hand than even Zombardo could have predicted.
They had two weeks allotted to conduct the experiment. It didn’t even last one.
Many times we see Zombardo lose it. One key moment is when a member of the research/experiment team has to leave, due to a death in the family, and Philip doesn’t lose it, but the lack of care for his colleague’s dead family member is evident. We can see how Zombardo doesn’t care about anything else, anybody else. Nothing other than his precious experiment. So, in subtle scenes like that we see the fabric of his personality wearing away. He meets an older man, either a former mentor or an older colleague, who asks about variables in his experiment; Phil dismisses him in a mix between anger, resentment, and perhaps a small dose of doubt, guilt, too. The character is a loaded one and full of many complexities. We watch as the guy’s mind tears, right alongside many of the inmates and some of the guards in the experiment. Hard to tell sometimes exactly who is slipping most.
Then there’s Michael Angarano. He is a great actor, one I’ve enjoyed plenty on Cinemax’s The Knick. Here he plays the “John Wayne” guard, Christopher Archer. Watching him progress from the first scene where we see him, to the Napoleonic character he becomes later in the film, it truly is impressive. Some may get annoyed by his fake Southern accent – part of the character itself, imitating a character from Cool Hand Luke, and poorly (on purpose). However, I find Angarano excellent here. He plays a young man who is fairly despicable, just as bad as Zombardo, and certainly one of the worst of all the men playing guards. His youthfulness comes in handy because he portrays a guy who, in real life, went too far and thought it was all justifiable, as if being a terrible human being at the drop of a hat, as he was during the experiment, were a situation anybody would find themselves in. His character helps to call into question the individual moral dilemma of such an experiment, and displays exactly the type of behaviour any person in their right mind would be ashamed of if it were them. A few other good performances here, including Ezra Miller and Tye Sheridan plus more. Although, Angarano and Crudup clearly shine. That could also have much to do with their characters’ respective importance to the events in question. Still, they both do an amazing job pulling their share of the weight along the way.
This a dark and raw 5-star film based on true events. In the final fifteen minutes, The Stanford Prison Experiment devolves to madness and presents us with the regression of humanity, all represented in these men posing as the guards. The moment where Crudup’s Zombardo breaks is quietly intense, but it hits you hard. I do not admire anything about Zombardo. This moment just rocked me – especially with the line by Angarano afterward. There’s a despicable quality to the ending, and it lingered with me, yet above all a sense of relief. This film is a visceral one at times, it will get under your skin. Deep; if you let it. The bare human qualities of this movie made it one of my favourites from 2015.