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‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ Starring Ezra Miller, Dares You to Keep Watching

'The Stanford Prison Experiment,' Starring Ezra Miller, Dares You to Keep Watching

This exasperating film, winner of Sundance’s screenplay and Alfred P. Sloan prizes, about the price of power tells the real-life story of Dr. Zimbardo’s 1971 simulated prison study involving 18 male undergrads, randomly assigned the role of prisoner or guard, who are stripped of their humanity (among other things) by each other—and by their sadistic, psychologist puppeteer. (Think a more homoerotic, and claustrophobic, “Compliance”.) 

The cast boasts many a dreamy indie “it” boy, including Ezra Miller (in a ferocious but all too brief turn), Keir Gilchrist, Jack Kilmer, Michael Angarano, James Wolk, Tye Sheridan and fresh-faced Sundance breakout Logan Miller. Billy Crudup astutely leads the ensemble as Philip Zimbardo, whose ill-conceived faux prison breaks them down and throws them into degrading, uncomfortable and sometimes erotic scenarios. Olivia Thirlby (in what is mostly a throwaway role) co-stars as Zimbardo’s skeptical fiancee.

READ MORE: 2015 Sundance Film Festival Awards

The film is a grueling experience but it works thanks to licks of black humor and Ezra Miller’s monstrous screen presence. Composer Andrew Hewitt (“The Double”) delivers yet another electrifying soundtrack, ratcheting up Fernando Collins’ watertight editing. Written by Tim Talbott and directed by third-time filmmaker Alvarez (“C.O.G.,” “Easier with Practice”), “The Stanford Prison Experiment” opens Friday in select cities. Here’s what other critics have had to say:

The Hollywood Reporter
Crudup’s performance here will count as a career high, but this is truly an ensemble piece, which gives equal weight to both the men in the virtual lab coats (actually, they’re in period-accurate suits and sport jackets mostly) and the rats in the maze. All are introduced in an adroitly edited opening montage that shuffles together the selection interviews, a screening process designed to choose subjects who were “exceptional” only for their normalcy. (There’s a great line when one is asked whether he has a history of sexual deviancy, to which he replies, “No,” followed by perfectly timed pause, “I’m a Stanford student.”)

AV Club
We watch with a mixture of fascination and unease as the group dynamics solidify. There’s a certain black humor to the situation (Alvarez uses the belated arrival of a “Day 2” title card to underline how fast things got fucked), but also a charge of real-world resonance, extending beyond the boundaries of the experiment depicted to more ugly examples of group think and abuse of power. The film stumbles only in its backstretch, when the focus shifts from the kids to the head researcher, Dr. Zimbardo (Billy Crudup), who becomes a part of his own experiment. The closing rush to explain the significance of what happened is completely unnecessary; the ugly spectacle of college kids stripping other college kids naked, in a humiliating show of dominance, speaks disturbing volumes.

Variety
The combination of relentless forward drive and gruesomely fastidious detail, while audacious and admirable in theory, begins to pay dwindling returns in a picture that feels rather longer than its 122-minute running time.

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