Late in the summer of 1971, the basement of Stanford University's psychology building became a prison. A group of young men acted as inmates and guards in a role-playing research project that turned into a nightmare. This study is mentioned in just about every college psych book on Earth. The Stanford Prison Experiment brings it to sharp, cinematic life.
The film chronicles the six long days of the experiment, which was supposed to last for two weeks. Within the first three days, the guards started torturing the prisoners, some of whom barricaded themselves in their cells or tried to escape. The simulated prison became all too real. This film is a gripping, unflinching look at what went wrong.
Lesser hands could easily mold this story into melodrama. But writer Tim Talbott and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez fortunately don't take too many artistic liberties. They don't imagine how the prisoners and guards live and behave beyond the prison walls. The men are as mysterious to the viewers as they were to the psychologists who conducted the experiment. However, that's not to say the characters aren't complex.
Each of the three lead actors adds an alluring layer of duality to their roles. Billy Crudup plays Dr. Philip Zimbardo as a sort of closeted mad scientist. You can feel him struggling to suppress his thirst for sensationalism beneath his aura of sophistication. In Crudup's eyes, you can see Zimbardo juggling concern for his subjects with a nagging desire to see them squirm. Ezra Miller's character, Prisoner 8612, is similarly dual-natured. He envelops the character in an air of ambiguity, making the audience question whether the prisoner wants to escape out of fear or a rebellious urge to rattle cages. Michael Angarano plays his enemy — an abusive guard nicknamed John Wayne. While terrorizing the prisoners, Angarano gives us the impression that Wayne is mystified by his own behavior, looking a bit surprised when he spews out insults — and when prisoners tolerate them.
While its characters are murky, the film's atmosphere is crystal clear. You can practically feel the heat of the prison's fluorescent lights beating down on you. It's a disturbingly drab setting — a khaki-colored abyss. If you've seen the footage of the prison from 1971, you'll appreciate how the film recreates it with eerie accuracy. This is the movie I've been hoping for since I first learned about the experiment back in my high school sociology class. The story is as shocking now as it was then. This film is a darkly dazzling, eye-opening exploration of obedience and abuse.
Sadly, the same abuse of power that occurred during this experiment 40 years ago still happens today. We saw it a few weeks ago when Texas trooper Brian Encinia brutalized and falsely arrested a young African-American woman named Sandra Bland.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is all too timely. This film puts its finger firmly on the pulse of America at the moment. It's harrowing and hard to watch, but you won't want to miss it.
Opening: Friday at Keystone Art