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Stanford Prison Experiment Movie Is Worth a Look, but Best Watched If You Plan a Conversation to Follow


If you’ve ever taken even an introductory classes in psychology or sociology, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a case you’ll know. I’m pretty sure I’ve studied in at least four classes, but in case you don’t know, or can’t recall the case, here’s just a little background: In the summer 1971, a psychology professor and his research students wanted to test what effect prison would have on the emotional/mental state of even non-criminal types. So 9 young men were selected to play prisoners, and 9 others selected to play guards (along with several alternates), and a mock prison set up in the empty university. But the two week experiment was cut short because guards got out of hand, and the prisoners began to suffer emotional strain.

The case has been written about, documentaries made using the footage from security cameras, and films and television shows made “based on it”, including Das Experiment and the subsequent remake, The Experiment. Now a dramatization based on the experiment has been made … more than a decade after the film was first optioned. The film has been announced with various casts and directors over the years, but finally been made with director Kyle Patrick Alvarez and a cast of 25 young, male actors. And with all the challenges of adapting a true story with such a large cast, the film is a remarkably well made, compelling examination of a very disturbing event which captures the revelations that came as a result of the misguided experiment, while still putting several timely elements front and center.

Alvarez is an indie director who remains slightly under the radar but is deserving of far more consideration. He has a good eye, an understanding how to create an appropriate tempo, and an ear for dialogue (having written some of his own scripts as well as adapting others’ work). But one of the qualities I especially like about his films, including COG and Easier With Practice, is the fact that he’s one of the rare filmmakers who’s interested in asking about and examining masculinity, rather than focusing on men as if it’s a default. Films such as All Quiet on the Western Front, 12 Angry Men, or Reservoir Dogs should be examined for how they represent masculinity and gender, just the way films focused on women always result in an examination of gender and feminism. Alvarez doesn’t approach masculinity as the default but digs into some fascinating questions about gender which make his films more compelling.

And that interest in masculinity fits this story, because Dr. Phillip Zimbardo (played by Billy Crudup) was also fascinated by masculinity (and has even written psychology books on the subject). Also, it should be noted that one of the key hypothesis he went into the study with was the idea that part of what will break men in prison is the feeling of being emasculated (the reason he gave his prison subjects hospital gowns rather than prison uniforms and stripped them naked when they arrived).

In fact, a lot of this experiment was created with a certain sense of theatricality, which was clearly going to manipulate the results. For example, the guards were told to wear uniforms which looked suspiciously like the guards in the movie Cool Hand Luke, one of the quintessential prison movies from that period that most of these men would have seen. This outfit also put the guards behind sunglasses, despite them standing inside windowless hallways. Likewise, the prisoners weren’t just denied pants, but also underwear, and then forced to perform jumping jacks, sit-ups, and push-ups … something no man would want to do. Zimbardo created Kafkaesque scenarios by bringing in a priest to question the boys and put them through mock parole hearings, despite never telling them the crimes they were in prison for or their sentence.

But the event which the film supposes was the turning point of the experiment, and pushed it in a particular direction, was when Zimbardo witnessed an assault by one of the guards on a prisoner, on the security camera, without intervening. He had told the guards they would be watched, and by not stepping in, he suggested to the guards that they were not going to be held accountable for what they did during this experiment. Likewise, the prisoners, who were told the guards were being supervised, believed in that moment that they were truly in the hands of the guards (and fellow college students), who would do exactly what they pleased.

Now, the truth is, this film does make one big change that has been well documented in the history of the Stanford Prison Experiment. The prisoners rebelled before the guards began stepping out of line, baffling the research group and frustrating the guards. Narratively, I understand why the change was made, but it also feels slightly manipulative as an attempt to make audiences favor the prisoners … despite the fact that it’s nearly impossible to align with the guards at any point.

There are other relatively minor changes to the story which were made. For example, in this film, three boys are sent home as prisoners; in reality there were five. Or the fact that one of the boys joined the study with the expressed intention of writing an exposé on the experiment. Or that two of the participants would not have forfeited their money to go home. Even the now well-known interview a guard and prisoner had has been altered so that the biggest names have an additional scene together, even though logically, pairing these two up doesn’t make much sense. The examination is also very limited, as we don’t know how Zimbardo proposed or rules established.

For example, what was the intention of this study that lead to Stanford authorizing this kind of human experiment? Or why did they limit participants’ gender, race, and age … and did those specifications skew the results? But ultimately, most of the changes actually are minor, and the bigger issues the experiment raised are intact and retain the psychological findings Zimbardo and his team made. Specifically, why power so often yields cruelty and mistreatment and the many ways people survive and break when their rights have been denied them. There is rebellion, breakdowns, tears, silent resistance, submissiveness, and complete obedience shown as ways to cope.

Cinematically, the film is impressive considering the scope, historical legacy, and ensemble for an indie. Unlike many historical films, many people have at least seen some of the authentic footage, which adds a certain standard to live up to. The film captures the look of that original hallway and cells, and a majority of the actors find a look that seems both realistic and period appropriate. And considering the restrictions of filming in so few locations and most taking place in narrow hallways, the visual variety they were able to create on camera is to be applauded.

I was especially impressed by the sound-design (especially considering the minimum score used), which builds the film’s tension by increasing clarity and volume … so every banging door and clanging chain seems even heavier than before. The film’s color is especially muted, primarily because the guards and prisoners wear neutral, colorless clothing, and the film seems lit only fluorescent lights (at times the look is almost sickeningly bright). While Billy Crudup looks ridiculous with his slicked back hair and goatee (like a silent movie villain), it really was the look Zimbardo had at the time. Johnny Simmons’ look might be the only one that seems a little fake (saddled with a very 70s mustache), but for most of the actors who are required to have long hair and facial growth, they do get the characters’ looks rights.

As for the massive cast, they are across-the-board exceptional … and could make the film a landmark ensemble cast (like Outsiders or Dazed and Confused). Arguably the biggest names (besides older Crudup) are Ezra Miller, Ty Sheradon, and Michael Angarano, all of whom are very good in their roles. The only female with a major role in the film is Olivia Thirlby, continuing her run of being one of the most interesting actresses too often relegated to supporting roles. Nelson Ellis (no surprise) is exceptional as the prison consultant with real life experience as an inmate—especially his scene debating Gaius Charles psychology graduate student on the experiment’s merits. Charles, along with James Wolk are very good in their roles as Zombarda’s research students, but given limited opportunity to shine, because most scenes revolve around Crudup.

I would argue however that among the cast, Simmons, Thomas Mann, and Christopher Sheffield are the standout performers, considering the full range of emotions they each find for characters who are often required to be subtler than the bigger performances given by Sheridan and Miller as prisoners, and most of the unhinged guards. It’s hard to standout in a cast this large, and the fact that they do and strike an emotional chord shows the talent of these three young men. Relative newcomer Sheffield (I’ve only seen him briefly in The Maze Runner) is deserving of special recognition for finding the film’s most moving scenes as the quietly obedient prisoner with a moral compass.

I was predisposed to liking this film because as a genre, I tend to like prison stories. I don’t enjoy watching suffering and abuse of power, but the microcosm of such locations makes for fascinating psychological thrillers. While clearly about a mock prison, the film works much the same way. This issue the film will have to contend with is the fact that it’s a hard watch to get through. The project did not go well, and the result is a study which suggests pretty bad things about humanity.

And the film certainly doesn’t end on a note of optimism. (This is no Shawshank Redemption.) Which makes seeing this movie as a Saturday night out a tough sell. But it is a worthy watch … but best if you go in knowing the best way to get a payoff from the film will be to plan to have a real conversation afterwards. So if you plan to go, make sure to find people who will want to talk about it more than the appetizers you go out for afterwards.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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