Sundance 2015: The Intense & Riveting 'Stanford Prison Experiment'
by Alex Billington
January 29, 2015
Would you be a better guard or a better prisoner? How would you act? Most of us are inherently familiar with the "Stanford Prison Experiment", the infamously legendary psychology experiment conducted in the 1970s involving a mock prison testing the limits of prisoners against the guards. Many have been trying to adapt this for years, and we finally have a take on it - literally called The Stanford Prison Experiment. Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (of C.O.G. from Sundance 2013) along with screenwriter Tim Talbott bring to life the intense, brutal mock prison setup in the basement of a Stanford building. It's riveting to watch, and will be divisive just based on how crazy it gets. But we all knew it would go this far, right? Right?
The setup for the Stanford Prison Experiment is fairly basic - they recruit 18 different students for a study, each to be paid $15 per day for two weeks. Using a coin flip, the experimenters (lead by Dr. Philip Zimbardo, played by Billy Crudup) divide the people into two groups: guards and prisoners. The prisoners are given rags, and locked up as prisoners, with no other goal than to make it to the end. The guards, all given the same uniforms, have the job of keeping the prison orderly. What happens is that the authority given to the guards manifests in ugly ways, turning them into brutal oppressors. And we get to watch all of this unfold.
As expected, especially if you already know how the experiment "ends", things get crazy. The guards start getting more and more harsh in their demands, and the prisoners start to revolt and rise up in return, only to be met with more force because they don't really have the right to do anything (they're in prison!). It's a fascinating experiment and the key to making it work here was casting an incredible set of talented actors to play the prisoners/guards and then letting them lose. It gets emotional quickly, eliciting feelings of intense anger and distress from both the audience and the experimenters. Similar to the film Compliance, it's a study in coercion and the power we have over others, and it can be upsetting to watch and utterly gripping.
That said, the film never goes too far into disgusting territory. It says on point and doesn't dive deep into anything that I would consider offensive, not compared to Compliance. Don't forget, this is an experiment happening on Stanford University grounds, meaning nothing despicable will really take place (it would be stopped). On one hand, Dr. Zimbardo does let the guards break the rules in order to maintain authority, however they're just being bold and brutal. On the other hand, it's interesting to see how the prisoners respond more than anything, and eventually a few of them break down ("you can't mess with my head!!").
My biggest criticisms are that the film doesn't really provide any other greater insight into the experiment that we don't already know (because it's a real experiment we're all familiar with already). The ending wraps up in a very odd way, with some extra clips that just didn't need to be there. Ending it just earlier would've been fine. The rest of the film is intense enough, riveting enough, and bold enough that the experience of watching the experiment playing out is satisfying and we don't need more. It's not groundbreaking, but it is an impressive realization of the iconic experiment that establishes some precedents in terms of psychology.
The cast deserves to be highlighted as well, as there isn't a single weak link in it anywhere. Billy Crudup was a bit mellow, but I didn't have any problems with him. As for the participants in the study, it's pretty much a line-up of the best young actors on the rise today: Tye Sheridan, Ezra Miller, Ki Hong Lee, Michael Angarano, Moises Arias, Callan McAuliffe, Johnny Simmons, Nicholas Braun, Thomas Mann and James Frecheville. Miller and Angarano were the standouts, but everyone is impressive. This may be Alvarez's greatest accomplishment with the film – getting the kind of emotionally potent performances that make it a powerful and visceral film to watch. I just hope I never have to experience this experiment myself.
Alex's Sundance 2015 Rating: 8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing