Based on a remarkable true story, The Stanford Prison Experiment is a taut, claustrophobic look at a psychological study in the 1970s about a group of college-aged men who were told to play the roles of prisoners and prison guards. Directed by Kyle Patrick Alvarez, the film is unsettling in its probe of the psychological deterioration these young men experienced on such a rapid pace and the men behind the scenes who also got wrapped up in the scenario.
The ensemble cast is uniformly great, but it might be Michael Angarano who runs away with the film, adopting a cartoonish performance as the prison guard, who in the end tries to convince us he was simply doing his job. Manic, giddy, and in the end decidedly imposing, with his aviator shades and cruel demeanor, Angarano is a revelation in the film, with director Alvarez pulling a mighty performance out of the young actor. Ezra Miller was my main draw at the start, having impressed me in the past, but he ends up possibly being the weakest link in the cast, overdoing many of the “bigger” acting scenes.
Written by Tim Talbott, the script allows for us to see the nature of these boys, the good and the ugly, and how they relate to one another. The idea is that the “prisoners” would have behaved similarly to the “guards” if the roles had been reversed. Did the “guards” use unnecessary tactics at times to try and humiliate the men playing prisoners? Absolutely. But who is to say they wouldn’t have done the same had the roles been reversed? The film (along with the original study itself) is a look at the basic human condition when stripped of nuance or gray areas. A study with the safety net of a screen between them and the acts tells young men to play the obedient and the ruler–how didn’t they see this outcome coming a mile away?
It’s hard by the end of the film to feel any need to justify the actions of Billy Crudup’s Dr. Philip Zimbardo, and it’s a testament to Crudup’s watchability that I didn’t hate him outright. His need to fulfill a psychological study changes rapidly, like the moods of the subjects themselves, from educative and dissociated to alert and obsessive.
The cast and the directing, tight in focus, with much of the action being up close and personal with the actors, is the ultimate sell of the film, and Alvarez is turning into quite an intriguing filmmaker. In recent years he’s also released the indie film C.O.G., starring Jonathan Groff, in a loose interpretation of a David Sedaris essay, and the two films couldn’t be further apart in terms of tonality, atmosphere, and the way they were shot. Both showcase an adept skill set, with someone behind the camera who has an eye for creating tension in ordinary settings, but neither one could be related to the other unless you had read the director’s filmography. I’d rather see a new director switch things up and don different genre hats then see a filmmaker who’s been around for a while continue to make the same film with different stories.
Enhanced by a thrumming score that amps up the desperation of the “prisoners” and the “cruelty” of the guards, and with a script that’s equally probing as it is cutting to the original process by Talbott, the film is an unforgiving look at the misgivings of egotism, people in positions of power, and the need to be control. It’s an excellent film and one worth seeing on a big screen in order to experience the true feeling of claustrophobia.
The Stanford Prison Experiment will ultimately be a divisive film for audiences, with the story at its center being dialogue prompting at best and frustrating at worst. It’s a silently powerful film that speaks largely about the human condition, and I can’t wait to see what topic and what story Alvarez chooses to tell next.