Oh, those hazy days of college where a chance at a few extra bucks never seems like a bad thing, even when this psychological experiment turns into a horrid example of what kind of an animal the human being truly is. While admittedly not a perfectly paced or constructed film, what The Stanford Prison Experiment does manage to do is give us as close an approximation to what may have actually happened. It never leans on theatrics and it delivers cold reality.
In an institution that is devoted to research and betterment of the human condition, the human psych experiment is as old as time itself and in most cases is just a scenario for kids to earn a couple of extra bucks, but even with the best of intentions things can go sideways. In 1971, Professor Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) casts 24 student volunteers as both guards and prisoners in a simulated jail to examine the source of abusive and psychologically damaging behaviour. The results were astounding as mild mannered undergrads morphed into joyless sadists and victims in a scenario that any of them could have walked away from at any time.
While avoiding the obvious temptation to allow this story to descend into cheap horror motifs, The Stanford Prison Experiment keeps us grounded in the moment as we see this experiment morph these kids into something that none of them could have every imagined..
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez captures the social malaise and undercurrent of apathy in the early seventies youth to a tee as these over eager psychologists and psychiatrists set off on their experiment. He successfully keeps us in the moment as he balances the actually facts behind this story against some of the more obvious story telling tropes. It plays more frightening then you’d think as just a straight slice of historical story telling. Alvarez stays away over dramatization in his framing making sure everything is as staid and generic as possible without any dramatic musical swells. The script from writer Tim Talbott was solid and while it doesn’t allow for a great deal of character development it allows everyone in the cast to fall in to the roles that need to in a rather effortless fashion.
Billy Crudup leads an interesting but ultimately faceless ensemble and upon reflection, I think that may have actually been the point to it all in the first place. It’s not supposed to be about the individuals because in the prison system that is what it is does, it takes individuality away from the subjects that these people are housing. The likes of Michael Angranao and Ezra Miller become Correctional Facilities Officer and prisoner #8612 in a system thwart is doing them no favors. In many ways, it is very much a set piece that forces us to experience reaction, instead of action with these characters. The lack of characters for us to give a damn about means very little against the backdrop of the entire experience. The actors all buy into how damn cold this is all supposed to be and it makes for a fairly engaging ensemble performance.
Ultimately, The Stanford Prison Experiment isn’t the kind of thing that is going to light the world on fire, but it does give us a quiet and a little upsetting look into the nature of the human psyche that is more than worth a watch because the entertainment is in how damn clinical it all unfolds.
- Release Date: 9/25/2015
- Directed by: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
- Starring: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Gaius Charles, Moises Arias, Olivia Thrilby, Tye Sheridan
- Written by: Tim Talbott
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