The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) is a film about what it means to be human, with a special emphasis on what it feels like to suffer and to know pain. Of course, it’s also about the Stanford prison experiment, which is portrayed so realistically, one wonders why a film was even made about it at all.
Those searching frames for facsimiles of what they learned in Psych class are likely to be pleased, finding that, within these artificial halls of realism, viewers are trained not to wonder, but to condemn their imaginations under director Kyle Alvarez’s strict, no-tolerance policy demanding them to do so. An appropriate tag-line for this film could’ve been, “Here it is. Again.”
There is no escape for the audience, save a solitary scene that takes place, presumably, at the home of Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his girlfriend, Dr. Christina Maslach (Olivia Thirlby). All other scenes are shot within the Stanford University hall chosen for the experiment and recreated for this film, which is incredibly effective at creating and incubating the heavy, somber mood that simply does not leave The Stanford Prison Experiment. Nor the viewer, for that matter.
But I go too fast . . . What is this experiment?—A group of willing, college-age males are chosen by Dr. Zimbardo and his graduate staff, along with a former prison inmate/current advisor, Jesse, (Nelsan Ellis) to simulate the experience of prison life by enacting roles as guards and prisoners in a mock prison created at Stanford University during the summer of 1971. All are observed continuously by Zimbardo and his staff, who sit back and watch what unfolds from a safe distance. What is it that determines the students’ roles in the experiment? A mere coin toss.
“We’ve embellished very little,” said Alvarez during the introduction he provided for the Winchester Film Club. The Stanford prison experiment (the actual experiment) being not a muted, mysterious nor un-documented occurrence, the film aridly translates reports of the experiment via audio/video recreation—nothing is happening here but what is already known and previously documented. So why do it? Why choose to cloak something that just is in an art form when not a thing new or distinct is to be introduced to the public about it?—I don’t know either.
Which brings us to The Stanford Prison Experiment’s strength and, probably (this reviewer cannot fully decide) saving grace—the talented young cast.
Viewers experience all the dramatic capabilities of pain-addled and heavy human emotional trauma within the characters; specifically, within the dramatic interplay between the guards and prisoners, their role assignations and the consequences thereof. This relationship is the vehicle for all of the The Stanford Prison Experiment’s movement into a dense, mind-probing experience; one that leaves audience members feeling anchored to the floor when the credits appear.
Though it lacks in creativity, Alvarez’s follow-the-rules-and-make-what-happened-happen-again style is quite effective at inducing the feeling of confinement within the frame, which, for this story, is both fitting and feels . . . proper, dull as it is. As viewers, our sight is limited to what occurs within the artificial prison; we are fully immersed. After Day One, the mind is even ready to dispel the term, artificial, as rules are broken that not only jeopardize the experiment, but also the safety of all participants as well, ushering in a minute thrill in the form of a question: Just how far is this going to go? Or, just how far is Zimbardo going to allow this to go?
Crudup, as the experiment’s progenitor and future figurehead, Dr. Zimbardo, strikingly resembles his character, Russell Hammond, from Almost Famous (2000). Add about ten years after Stillwater’s farewell you’ve got Russell finally getting his shit together. There are even intrinsic similarities between the two characters. Like Russell, Zimbardo’s getting off on the feelings of others, searching for the “real.” Though now, as a psychologist, it’s more socially and, technically speaking, ethically, acceptable for him to do so. However, Dr. Russell Z., the professor, is also dating one of his students, which, along with the goatee he wears (less a symbol of good than evil in film), is likely to impress upon modern-day viewers the likes of an absent-minded and untrustworthy figure of authority. Ethically speaking, of course.
But before you go humming “Fever Dog,” remember, this film is about the experiment; what happened and how it affected those it happened to. The talents of Ezra Miller (Prisoner 8612) and Tye Sheridan (Prisoner 819) in particular, as prisoners experiencing true pangs induced by the erasure of their identities, confront viewers with the pain of one suffering at the unmerciful and demeaning hands of another simply because one has been designated to rule, the other to be ruled. “You have no right to fuck with my head!” screams Prisoner 8612 with a terror-stricken animal’s fury.
There are no surprises when considering the facts. Any human being aware of roles played and playing won’t find much worth the adjective, thrilling, in this film. Power conferred by authority from a distance is carried to the utmost degree of severity, which pushes the audience around much like the guards physically and emotionally push the prisoners. Humiliation ensues, via convincing roles of terror from actors, Michael Angarano, Nicholas Braun and James Frecheville, who, as prison guards, expertly show how quickly and with just such a little push, man becomes beast-like, reason or no.
Though I’ve failed to come up with a reason to justify The Stanford Prison Experiment’s translation into film, I won’t deny being moved by the film’s emotional depth; carrying that out of the theatre and into my life for the evening. There might’ve been some pretty good reasons why this project was “around town for a really long time,” as Alavarez remarked in his introduction—perhaps because the idea is but an empty cell? Nevertheless, it’s here now, and for what it lacks in originality, in creativity, The Stanford Prison Experiment surely makes up for in intensity of feeling.