Most people have probably heard of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a bunch of elite college students in 1971 got more than they bargained for when they volunteered for an unusual psychological study to play either inmates and guards in a simulated prison environment. There have been a few movies based on the concept, most notably the 2010 film The Experiment (starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker), but I wasn’t aware of a film that tried to depict the actual events — until now.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is largely based on the book by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the study back in 1971 to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behaviour between them. And so begins a fascinating look into the complex and unexpected dynamics between power and authority, subservience and rebellion, empathy and cruelty. It’s not just the inmates and guards either — the effects of the experiment extended to the teachers and the supervisors, and even to the relationship between Zimbardo and his girlfriend, who happens to be a former student of his.
This is by no means an easy film to watch — some parts are unbearably tense, others just plain unbearable — but it’s one that absolutely captivated me from start to finish. Part of it is indeed the intrigue of the premise itself, though it would be unfair to attribute it all to that since I basically already knew what would happen and what the outcome would be.
It is a low budget film, but it’s also a film that didn’t need much of a budget because almost all of it is set in the simulated prison on the university campus. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, and most importantly they somehow manage to make you believe what is happening on screen despite how little sense it seems to make. It made me incredulous, it made me angry, and it made me sad — it’s one of those surreal experiences that make you question what you think you know about human nature and even yourself.
The film is far from fast-paced, though there’s always enough drama and tension — notwithstanding some repetitiveness — to compel me to keep watching. I suspect it will be remembered as a polarising film, and I can definitely understand if some people dislike it for its dark tones and ugliness.
First announced in 2002, The Stanford Prison Experiment was in developmental hell for a dozen years before unknown director Kyle Patrick Alvarez managed to get it done with a brilliant cast of established actors and up-and-coming stars.
Headlining the performers is Billy Crudup, who plays the well-intentioned Zimbardo, with a whole bunch of recognisable names — or at least faces — filling out the other roles. These include Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and soon-to-be Flash in the new DC cinematic universe), Michael Angarano (The Final Kingdom, Red State), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life, and soon-to-be young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), James Frecheville (the fantastic Aussie man-child from Animal Kingdom), Johnny Simmons (Jennifer’s Body, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner series), Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto; Val Kilmer’s son), Thomas Mann (Project X, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Barely Lethal), Olivia Thirlby (Juno, Dredd), and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood).
Interestingly, the script is co-written by Christoper McQuarrie, best known for winning the screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects and more recently for writing Edge of Tomorrow and directing the awesome Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.
As uncomfortable and frustrating as it is, I think The Stanford Prison Experiment is a brilliant film that will have you asking yourself how you might react in their situations. Though it’s based on events that are more than 40 years old, the concepts and themes remain as relevant today as they did then, perhaps even more so in light of what we now know since the outbreak of the War on Terror. Thanks to the wonderful performances from the talented cast, a great script and skillful filmmaking, I found myself engrossed in the experiment, much like its participants. It’s a chilling and troubling experience that deserves a lot more attention and discussion than it’s been receiving.
4.5 stars out of 5