The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
122 min., rated R.
A gripping, chillingly provocative study in dehumanization and the abuse of authority, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a docudrama of an actual experiment. On August 14, 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his research team began a study, funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, on the cause and effect between prison guards and inmates. They hired twenty-four college students for $15 a day and selected them to play either prisoners or guards in a simulated prison environment in the Stanford psychology building's basement for a two-week period. The guards quickly adapted to their roles, remaining in character with sunglasses on and abusing their power, and the prisoners in numbered gowns and stocking stops forced to address the guards as "Mr. Correctional Officer." Once on "the inside," 8612 (Ezra Miller) refuses to be obedient and begins to lash out at the punishment of the guards, who make it their duty to break the prisoners. Everything would soon escalate out of control, and the experiment was terminated early on August 20th, only lasting six days.
Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (2013's "C.O.G.") and screenwriter Tim Talbott bring a documentary-like approach to the real-life experiment. The tone is straight. The scope is contained and claustrophobic as it should be. The characters on the prisoner side are more well-drawn than those playing the guards, although there are little nuances all around. In the tradition of 1992's "School Ties" and 1996's "White Squall," there is a dynamite who's-who ensemble of young rising male actors from this generation, many of whom have acted together before, with the major standouts being Ezra Miller ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") as Daniel Culp/Prisoner 8612, the first inmate to be placed in the "the hole" (a closet) and to grow hysterical and rebellious; Tye Sheridan ("Mud"), as Peter/Prisoner 819; and Michael Angarano, as Christopher Archer, who assumed the role of an evil guard with a drawl he modeled after Strother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke." With their smoking and sporting of '70s haircuts and facial hair, other familiar faces fill out the roles of guards and prisoners, including Nicholas Braun ("Date and Switch"), Keir Gilchrist ("It Follows"), Moises Arias ("The Kings of Summer"), James Frecheville ("Animal Kingdom"), Thomas Mann ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"), Johnny Simmons ("The To Do List"), Logan Miller ("+1"), and Jack Kilmer ("Palto Alto"). There isn't a weak link among them. Billy Crudup is strong, putting himself into the shoes of Dr. Philip Zimbardo who stopped seeing his hired subjects as human beings, and the lone female in the cast, Olivia Thirlby, does what is required of her as Zimbardo's future wife Dr. Christina Maslach, who demanded he stop the experiment.
Building a pall of visceral unease from the perspective of the prisoners, director Alvarez allows the depths of human depravity to unfold as a chamber piece for two hours. The film isn't that interested in who these boys are outside of the experiment, but that's not really its intent, either. Seeing how both the boys playing the prisoners and the guards change and what they take away from the experiment is also quite telling. On the other side, the dynamic between Zimbardo and one of his consultants, hard-ass real-life prisoner Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), is a fascinating one. Not much more than a clinical but convincing and strongly acted dramatization of a shockingly true story, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" still effectively calls into question the methods of the experiment and the power of role-playing without pretending to answer every question it raises. What's more, it seems to adhere more to the veracity of the recorded data and memories of the real Professor Zimbardo than a phony Hollywoodization. That's most unsettling in itself.