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.