At Stanford University in the summer of 1971, psychologist Phillip Zimbardo embarked on a study of the abuse of power. He assembled a group of students and paid them to take part in a simulated prison experience and thus The Stanford Prison Experiment was born. Fast forward 44 years and director Kyle Patrick Alvarez has recreated this now notorious experiment for the big screen. And my goodness is it fascinating. With an ensemble cast of indie film all stars (to say the least), The Stanford Prison Experiment is a visceral, gripping and intelligent film that grabs your attention and forces you to experience up close—often literally—the claustrophobia and paranoia that took place in the basement hallway on Stanford campus.
From the very beginning we see just how arbitrarily the guards and prisoners are chosen. A simple coin flip determines ones fate. It seems like business as usual at first. As if the participants are just playing pretend. But very quickly they find out that this is very real, and they find that it spirals out of control just as fast.
The cast is phenomenal and the film is incredibly well acted. In fact, the acting is far and away the strongest aspect of this film. Ezra Miller (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) overacts a little bit as one of the prisoners, but as a viewer, you can feel his terror. We are consumed by his hysteria and he will do anything he can to get out. Billy Crudup plays Zimbardo and does a fantastic job as a man who is torn between his experiment and doing what is right. We aren’t quite sure what his intentions with this experiment are but he exhibits a sense of trust and composure to reassure us he knows exactly what he is doing. Zimabrdo himself in a way becomes immersed in his experiment as if he is participating in it. He, as the guards do, feels a striking sense of power and we see Zimbardo gradually lose himself in this situation. It also features one of Tye Sheridan’s earlier roles.
What really steals the show in this film is the performance of Michael Angarano as the most twisted and sadistic guard of the bunch. He draws inspiration from the warden of the Paul Newman classic Cool Hand Luke. He is mockingly dubbed “John Wayne” by the prisoners. He takes on a southern accent and gets lost in his character much to the dismay of the prisoners he guards. Humiliating and emotionally breaking down even the most obedient of prisoners, his character is visually joyous when he recognizes the power he has over his peers.
To the prisoners, it becomes emotionally and physically real. It becomes so real that they beg for parole when in reality they can leave whenever they want. But, all parties involved are fully immersed in this experience and there becomes no way out. Alvarez and screenwriter Tim Talbott’s script bring this absorbing and eerily resonant tale to life with a gritty and authentic filmmaking style.
The film looks incredible and looks like it was filmed during the era it depicts. The budget on this film couldn’t have been very high, but the production value is incredible. Alvarez uses close up shots and captures the fear, panic and emotional distress felt by the prisoners and juxtaposes it against the guard’s sense of control and power. Alvarez does a masterful job of directing this film and pulling everything he can out of his actors to show the panic and emotional harm done to the students who participated in this experiment. Though it seems overlong and at times overacted, I was never bored with this film.
The Stanford Prison Experiment is a terrifically acted and beautifully shot film that is intense, thought provoking and an emotional film. It is at times difficult to watch but you can’t take your eyes off the screen and the great performances that are within it. The film is available on Netflix as of this date and if it’s one that you’ve missed I cannot recommend it enough.
“The Stanford Prison Experiment”
Cast: Billy Crudup, Ezra Miller, Michael Angarano, Tye Sheridan, Olivia Thrilby, Thomas Mann
Director: Kyle Patrick Alvarez
Runtime: 120 Minutes
Rated: R (for language including abusive behavior and some sexual references)