Friday, July 22, 2016

Movie Review - The Stanford Prison Experiment

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
Starring Billy Crudup, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Nicholas Braun, Gaius Charles, Nelsan Ellis Keir Gilchrist, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Mann, Ezra Miller, Logan Miller, Chris Sheffield, Tye Sheridan, Johnny Simmons, James Wolk, and Olivia Thirlby
Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez

Absolutely fascinating.  That was my reaction all throughout The Stanford Prison Experiment which is one of the year's most riveting edge-of-your-seat films.  While not a horror movie, director Kyle Patrick Alvarez's film plays like one as twenty-four young college students are recruited to portray either prisoners or guards and, over the course of what was supposed to be a fourteen-day mock prison experiment, form reactions and attitudes that these men had no idea were inside them.

What exactly are the psychological effects of being a prisoner or prison guard?  That's the question that psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) wanted to explore in August 1971.  After placing an ad in the local paper looking for young male college students, two dozen kids were selected and randomly chosen to be either guards or prisoners by Zimbardo and his student colleagues.  On the relatively empty Stanford campus (thanks to summer break), Zimbardo took over a whole floor of his psychology building, creating cells and a variety of areas for the prisoners and guards to inhabit.  While things start out pleasant enough between the two groups of students, the prisoners begin to insist on certain considerations to which Zimbardo tells his guards to "take control" which they vigorously embrace leading to some horrifically chilling moments of psychological torture.

The fact that this happened in real life -- oh, I hadn't mentioned that tidbit yet -- is insane and it makes what unfolds all the more intriguing.  The cast of young men (and one woman) form one of the best ensembles put onto film in 2015.  Tye Sheridan gives his best performance yet as he gradually comes undone as Prisoner 819.  Similarly, Johnny Simmons has a heartbreaking scene as his Prisoner 1037 faces the parole board (yes, this experiment went so far as to have a parole board) and Thomas Mann also captivates as a prisoner brought in towards the end of the experiment who immediately realizes that something isn't quite right.  Kudos also to heretofore unknown actor Chris Sheffield as Prisoner 2093 who has an incredibly moving moment near the film's conclusion that makes Dr. Zimbardo question the ethics of his experiment.

Speaking of Zimbardo, Billy Crudup doesn't have the flashiest role in the film, but he's certainly the glue that holds things together and does a great job of conveying his initially innocent character's insistence of the importance of the mock prison and his slide into the frightening puppeteer who controls everything.  As the lead guard, Michael Angarano gives one of the scariest performances of the year.  His character's ease into strict authoritarianism depicts a frightening side to human emotions that we all may have inside us.  With the exception of Ezra Miller who I thought was playing his character similar to every other character I've ever seen the young actor play, the entire cast of knowns and unknowns kept my eyes glued to the screen.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is a film I didn't want to end.  I'm not a psychology buff in the slightest - I tend to think it's mostly a load of hooey - so for me to be riveted by this film was a complete surprise.  The talented ensemble should take a lot of the credit, but director Kyle Patrick Alvarez deserves much praise as well.  His film doesn't play like an educational documentary.  Instead, this is a tense discomforting two hour journey into human behavior with his camera allowing us to witness both the emotional trauma of the prisoners and the sadistic glee of the guards.  My words at the beginning of this review really sum up my thoughts about the movie as a whole -- absolutely fascinating.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-


  1. Didn't realize a film came out based on this. This experiment and the monkey one (where babies are given wire-constructed mothers) are the two that I remember most from any psychology coursework. They were the most often/across the board referenced, I think, so it makes sense. Well--those and Pavlov's dog. Wish it was on Netflix instant! I'll keep and eye out.

  2. Check out your local library -- I've been renting a lot of stuff from them this summer. (And I have no recollection of the monkey-wire mother experiment...then again, I zoned out in psychology quite often...)

  3. Oh yeah. the library! They've wrongly charged me .10 overdue fee that I'm set to contest tomorrow. Hadn't thought of film rentals though-duh. The monkey wire mother thing is pretty sad--probably don't look it up if you don't want a downer.