‘The Stanford Prison Experiment,’ Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s beautifully and intensely executed new film, is a hard film to say you “like.” Who wants, after all, to have humans’ latent inhumanity shoved in their face? Many viewers like the security of knowing that the expression of evil is contained within a carefully constructed plot, rather than within an account of actual events, as is the case with this film. That being said, the movie’s tale of a 6-day Stanford 1971 psychological group experiment gone wrong could be shown to visitors from outer space as an example of what debased behavior we people are capable of; within the limits of this film we witness violence, sexual aggression, and verbal abuse among people who don’t know each other, under the guise of role-playing: playacting at being prisoners and prison guards. In showing these interactions between individuals in a controlled circumstance, the film not only teaches us about human nature but about what it means, in a number of senses, to perform.
If you were so inclined, you could read the film as a distorted, souped-up revision of ‘The Breakfast Club.’ Characters’ defenses are broken down, and social leveling occurs—but not in a benign, easily digested manner. If one were looking for someone to embody “the detachment of scientific inquiry” to serve as the erstwhile chaperone/monitor of this group, you could choose no better actor than Billy Crudup. His rather blank eyes and face, since his turn as drug-addled FH in the film of Denis Johnson’s ‘Jesus’ Son,’ make him seem capable of doing or saying anything. Here, he portrays Dr. Philip Zimbardo, who chose 24 Stanford students to find the answer to a question that was, to be fair, one he should have been talked out of by peers: what would happen if you recreated prison-like circumstances for 2 weeks? How would subjects interact? How would their behavior change? How does this explain prisoner guard-relationships in current houses of detention? He pursues his ends with focus that ultimately tends towards dementia. The selection of the students is handled briskly; almost all of the long-haired, effete, mellow students say that would prefer to be prisoners, almost none guards—but in the end the roles are assigned randomly. Once “inside,” the individuals fall easily into their assigned parts—almost too easily, one thinks, until you remember that their acceptance of the assignment indicates interest in its performative aspect. And yet the performance promptly gives way to an ugly reality, as the guards brutalize and intimidate their charges without restraint, and the prisoners plot small revolts against the guards—within days.
Few of the actors here are household names, and yet one would hope the film garners them the recognition they deserve. Each individual here gives a crisp, independent performance; each character’s unraveling and debasement is rendered beautifully, fascinating to watch. One prisoner gets headaches without his glasses; one won’t say the word “bastard” even when threatened by a brutal “guard”; another takes his role as prisoner so seriously that he practically collapses from nervous exhaustion. The guards, as well, show great comfort in their meanness—the guard the scientists refer to as “John Wayne” (played with strikingly persuasive confidence by Michael Angarano) issues all of his commands in a relaxed drawl, while one of his colleagues stomps impassively through the hallways, expression concealed by reflecting sunglasses. Much of the dialogue we hear in the film comes from transcripts—very little had to be fabricated to make the film gripping to watch.
And yet there’s a question lurking here, beneath the film’s impressive, headlong momentum. Why? Why the experiment? Did Zimbardo think his experiment might make a social difference, or was there some intellectual game-playing behind it? We learn something in this film, in addition to lessons about the human psyche, about the nature of performance—about the different ways performers assume their roles, and about the different effects those roles can have. We play roles perpetually–in daily life, in our relationships, in our jobs. We feel things we don’t feel, we take actions we know by rote, the meant gesture and the unmeant gesture blur. And yet we never think about the cumulative effect all of this pretending has on our psyches.