Note: This review was originally published back in January 2015 as part of our coverage for the Sundance Film Festival.
“819 did a bad thing. 819 did a bad thing. 819 did a bad thing…”
In 1971, Dr. Philip Zimbardo held an experiment in the basement of Stanford University’s Logan Hall, home of its psychology department. The experiment was to see what would happen after volunteer students were assigned to play either the roles of a prison guard or an inmate, a study that was supposed to last two weeks only to end well before. The results were shocking, the test itself controversial, but ultimately valuable. Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s new film takes on the name of the study, The Stanford Prison Experiment, and manages to create a mood so disturbing, intense, and believable that it’s easy to forget we’re watching a movie in spite of all the familiar faces.
The film begins with a screening of the Stanford volunteers held by Dr. Zimbardo’s assistants. Most of the students appear interchangeable with one another — male, early 20s, smokers, etc. The defining thread they share is their desire to play the role of a prisoner for the study, because as one volunteer says, “Nobody likes guards.” This leads Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his assistants (Mad Men’s James Wolk and Friday Night Lights’ Gaius Charles chief among them) to randomly select who will be guards and who will be prisoners, a decision that bears heavily on the remainder of the film. What follows is an example of what we’re capable of doing once we accept a role in society — whether that role is one of authority once being issued an outfit, sunglasses, and a nightstick, or one of submission by being stripped of clothes, put in a long nightshirt, and locked up in a cell. Nearly as important is what happens to those in charge of the whole situation, study or not.
In an on-campus basement, a hallway has been transformed into a makeshift prison, with three cells housing three inmates apiece on one side and a closet (a.k.a. “hold cell”) on the other side. There are no windows, and a large wooden plank at the end of the hall has a circle cut out that is just large enough to fit through the lens of a video camera. The guards are not permitted to exert any physical action upon the prisoners, and everyone believes this will be the easiest way to earn $15-per-day they’ll ever have. Within only one day, this proves to be an incorrect assumption.
We see the guards becoming more and more aggressive through both physical and psychological means. The chief among them is referred to as “John Wayne” (Michael Angarano), an otherwise normal student who decides to take on the persona of a vicious Southern sheriff for the study. He slams his nightstick around to startling effect, demands that the prisoners memorize and repeat their prison numbers, and most importantly, that they all address the officers as “Mr. Correctional Officer.” While he may be the least physically abusive of the study’s nine guards, he somehow comes across as the most brutal. It’s all down to the psychology of the situation.
But it’s not all mind games. One inmate is brought down by a nightstick while another is hogtied for hours on end. Before too long, certain inmates appear to be losing not only their grip on reality, but their sense of self along with it. Mud’s Tye Sheridan plays the role of “819”, who has become so trapped in his role as a prisoner that he’s terrified to tell his parents what is going on during “Visitors Day”. Sheridan conveys both internal and external struggle with equal aplomb, proving to be one of the best young actors working today. He’s but one standout in a cast of standouts, including fellow inmate Ezra Miller as “8612”, who goes from cocky to broken in a matter of days. Angarano, previously best known for his role as “Young William” in 2000’s Almost Famous, is a revelation as the no-nonsense and relentless “John Wayne”; shorter than many of his inmates but managing to stand tall above them from word-one.
The “adults” in The Stanford Prison Experiment give performances just as powerful as those playing the volunteers. Crudup’s had a career that didn’t exactly take off as many thought it would post-Almost Famous, but in Zimbardo, he may be at his all-time best. Zimbardo is not a monster by any means, but a doctor who believes what he’s doing can help prison reform throughout the world. He gets called out for not having all the ingredients needed to label what he considers an experiment, but instead some kind of warped demonstration. It’s because of his scientific mind that he can’t see what the process is doing to not only the prisoners and guards, but to those heading up the project. Nelsan Ellis (True Blood) plays Jesse, a friend of Zimbardo and a real-life former inmate who is best able to relate to what the prisoners are experiencing, as well as replicate how an officer would act during a parole hearing. Ellis’ “reading” of a potential parolee’s rap sheet and successive verbal assault is one of the film’s highlights.
As for the direction, Alvarez makes great use of the limited space he has to operate the camera, staging a countless number of shots mere inches away from the faces of those being studied. He manages to create even more claustrophobia in a setting already beset by it. There is no outside light shining in and no clocks on display, so we’re as stunned as the prisoners would be when we discover how much happens on “Day 1” alone once the title card for “Day 2” appears onscreen. Alvarez plays with audience perception just as much as the professor does with his volunteers.
If the movie has any faults, it’s that it gives us a lengthy postscript which attempts to fill in the blanks of something that needed no further explanation. The movie could have ended with a bang, but instead ends with a whimper. However, what comes before is simply chilling. The Stanford Prison Experiment really happened, and the film challenges our inhibitions by having us ask ourselves, “What would I do?” Fortunately, it’s not a dare.
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