THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language including Abusive Behavior and some Sexual References

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Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Written by: Tim Talbott

Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Olivia Thirlby, Nelsan Ellis, Tye Sheridan, James Wolk, Logan Miller, Johnny Simmons & Michael Angarano

2015 has brought two famous psychology experiments to the big screen. One of these being the infamous Milgram obedience studies and the other being Zimbardo’s notorious Stanford Prison Experiment. The latter has already been adapted onto the screen twice with the German film DAS EXPERIMENT and that film’s American remake 2010’s THE EXPERIMENT. While both of those films sensationalized what actually occurred in the small “cell block” of Stanford University, this new cinematic representation of the story is a more grounded, realistic take on how the experiment actually played out. Though it’s an intense and very upsetting movie, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT will likely be considered required viewing in many college Psychology classes.

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In the summer of 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo puts out an ad for volunteers in a psychological experiment. A group of students are assembled and then split into two smaller groups: guards and prisoners. In the hallway of a basement, Zimbardo recreates a prison setting and intends on studying how innocent students react to the new environment and their new designated roles. However, Zimbardo’s simulation was cut short after severe mental breakdowns and emotional damage was being inflicted on volunteers. This film pretty much authentically recreates the six days of the experiment as they unfold.

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STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is a movie that’s been in the works since 2002 and took over a decade to finally make it to the big screen. While this is usually a warning sign, this is actually a great film for a number of reasons. While DAS EXPERIMENT and THE EXPERIMENT were sensationalized thrillers with big name actors, this film takes a much more fact-based approach to the real events. The film mostly takes place in two settings: the prison hallway and the room in which Zimbardo’s team watches the events unfold. The latter is where this movie really shines in showing the unethical practices and questionable methods that were happening behind the scenes of the simulation. We watch as Zimbardo (who seems like a reasonable guy at the beginning) slowly devolves as the experiment begins to take control of his personality. Billy Crudup does a fantastic job as Zimbardo and gets us to see how a doctor with good intentions temporarily transforms into an emotionless machine of a man.

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Besides Crudup, the rest of the cast shine as well. A few of the actors playing guards/prisoners should be familiar faces to some viewers. Michael Angarano (SKY HIGH, RED STATE) dominates the screen as the “John Wayne” guard. His faux Southern drawl line delivery comes off as comical and then quickly becomes disturbing as the experiment goes further. Tye Sheridan (who made waves in MUD and JOE), Ezra Miller and Johnny Simmons (both from PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) are appropriately sympathetic as prisoners. If there are any main characters to be had they come in Zimbardo and the “John Wayne” guard, while the rest of the prisoners and guard serve as objects in the experiment and that’s sort of the point.

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The film runs a little too long (being slightly over two hours) thanks to a couple of scenes that drag out (e.g. the prisoners counting off for five minutes or repeating the same line twenty times to torment another prisoner). I think the point of the film could have easily been made without running these moments for as long as they go. However, I particularly enjoyed the powerful acting from Crudup in the finale as he watches the psychological horrors unfold on the video camera. There’s no denying that the film is disturbing in the same way that 2012’s COMPLIANCE was, but for different reasons. The visuals also have a dank atmosphere thanks to gray, tan, brown and urine yellow being constant colors.

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Zimbardo originally began the Stanford Prison Experiment thinking it might be a long, boring experience. He could have never imagined it quickly shifting into the dark lesson of human nature that it became. College students transformed into monsters and victims based on roles assigned by a simple coin toss, while Zimbardo unintentionally ran an actual prison. This all comes out in a well-directed film that has quality acting and a fascinating (though deeply disturbing) true-life story at its core. While an extensive documentary on this experiment might have been slightly more powerful than a reenactment, THE STANFORD PRISON EXPERIMENT is well worth a watch…if you don’t mind taking a look at the darker side of human nature.

Grade: B+

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