This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the primal impulses of humanity are revealed with chilling and ugly clarity in psychodrama “The Stanford Prison Experiment.” This year’s “Compliance”—aka the confrontational, abrasive picture at Sundance that polarizes audiences to the point of inspiring screaming matches—‘Stanford’ is even more provocative, as well as more accomplished and thought-provoking. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez take a quantum leap into left field (his last film was the David Sedaris comic adaptation “C.O.G.”) with this examination of a disturbing true story.
In 1971, psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) begins the Stanford prison experiment,a landmark study of psychological incarceration examining the effects of authority, power and control as they apply to basic human behavior. With the assistance of his colleagues (James Wolk, Gaius Charles, Matt Bennett) and a real-life San Quentin convict employed to legitimize the experiment (Nelsan Ellis), Dr. Zimbardo seeks to recreate a prison environment in the basement of the Stanford University psychology building during the unoccupied summer months and analyze the results. Offering wages for their services, Zimbardo and his partners select twenty-four male students to assume randomly assigned roles of prisoners and guards in a mock prison situation. Intended to run two weeks, the escalation of violence and abuse is so severe that Dr. Zimbardo is forced to take drastic measures at the expense of further research.
With great skill and care, Alvarez’s film meticulously chronicles how the prison simulation went from shockingly bad to worse in record time. On one side is the guards (among them Michael Angarano, James Frecheville and Moises Arias) and on the other the prisoners (key members include Ezra Miller, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann and Jack Kilmer). While it all seems like fun and games at first, the authoritarians quickly assume aggressive and oppressive roles. A frighteningly note-perfect Angarano is one of the guards who takes to his powers like a duck to water. Behaving like the prickly redneck police in “Cool Hand Luke,” Angarano’s guard relishes his authority. The other guards fall in line, with each shift organically finding a leader in whoever appears to be crave the most antagonism.
With Darwinian precision, every man in the experiment lays bare his true nature. Some prisoners become completely compliant and meek, while the more rebellious protest and fight back but are quickly punished. After being unable to endure punishment or solitary confinement, the most aggressive prisoners break down into psychotic episodes after merely a few days. With no natural light in the rooms they are confined to and their routines constantly changing as the guards keep them on edge, the inmates cannot keep proper track of time and soon turn claustrophobic, paranoid and fearful. The recalcitrant prisoners are systematically broken down, the obedient ones are rewarded with better food and the manipulated behavior goes from civilized to “Lord Of The Flies” primal in a matter of hours.
As order collapses, the abuse escalates and the detainees come to resemble traumatized and debased inmates at Abu Ghraib in 2004, the psychologists watch in horror as the situation intensifies and deteriorates. Initially afraid to interfere, Zimbardo and the psychologists soon find themselves becoming active participants in the experiment, assuming the roles of withholding wardens and indifferent, dehumanizing parole officers. Olivia Thirlby plays a psychology professor and Zimbardo’s girlfriend, who initially assists in the experiment but then tries to convince the others to abandon it when the inherent sadism begins to spiral out of control. The psychology behind the experiment is utterly fascinating; the cruelty, the complicity, the passive aggression, and guards sickened by the appalling abuse but who stand by and say nothing. The study has been written consistently since, and the movie is overabundant with rich human textures, contradictions and seemingly programmable nature of men with very few situational parameters put in place.
Alvarez’s clinical but deeply engrossing execution of the drama is mesmerizing in its directness. The source material and behavior is so visceral and brutal that one could suggest the film writes and directs itself. And maybe that’s true to a point, but Tim Talbott‘s script is super economical, and Alvarez stages the hell out of the movie. “Stanford Prison Experiment” has an insanely stacked cast of talent as well. Crudup is astounding as Zimbardo, Frecheville is a stand-out as one of the guards, and Sheridan and Miller go to some painfully hard-to-watch places as two prisoners that are de-individualized beyond psychological repair.
Alvarez’s complex portrait also works double duty as a kind of experiment on the audience: a cruel, near-excruciating endurance test that plunges viewers face first into abusive behavior. As the psychological torture crosses the line, one can feel the film coil its hands around the audience’s neck ever so slowly. And through brilliantly simple composition, Alvarez masterfully manipulates the viewer into a complicit voyeur while putting them through grueling paces.
I experienced one of the most striking, spine-tingling shared cinema experiences I’ve had in my life when the movie crescendoed at a particularly grotesque peak and the audience recoiled; it felt purposefully orchestrated from the director. I was so wowed with witnessing and participating in this unnerving moment that I started to cackle with nervous laughter. It’s not Lars Von Trier-like in its challenging nature, but it’s not humorless; there are dark laughs to be found among the more genuinely shocking scenes.
The psychology behind the experiment is so sophisticated that it traumatizes both the characters on the screen and the viewer experiencing the film. One finds oneself taking sides as the drama grows chaotic. And I’m not sure what sickness this speaks to exactly, but I enjoyed every single frame… perhaps just a little too much. [A-]